A very unique post

Ta-Nehisi had a great post yesterday about words. In particular, he addressed the validity (or lack thereof) of the word conversate. Because it's good to blog for the Atlantic, he was able to discuss the matter with the Editor at Large for the Oxford English Dictionary. (I turn an unsightly shade of green whenever I think about this.) For my part, I have no beef with conversate, since it implies a less formal and more jocular manner of communication than does converse.

Reading yesterday, I was put in mind of this post, which I came across many weeks ago thanks to Andrew (though I can no longer find the old link). If you could access my medical records, you would be able to pinpoint the exact date and time that I read it, because my documentation abruptly switched from "Discussed anticipated clinical course" to "Discussed expected..."

When people misuse "anticipate" to the point where it is identical to "expect," there's nothing to cheer for anyone. Why? Because where we once had two words for two concepts, we now have two words for the same concept-- and no word that means "anticipate". You and I are rapidly losing that wonderful word. In it's place is a vague shell. Irony is a fantastic concept, wonderfully precise. The word "ironic," at this point, is close to having no individual meaning whatsoever. When "ironic" can mean any kind of sort of strange, sort of funny happenstance, we no longer use that word to access a specific and incisive idea.
Whoopsie. However, I'm glad to be reminded of proper usage, because usage matters. My own personal gripe is the blurring of unique. Unique means (or used to) something one-of-a-kind, unduplicated and singular. It makes me howl quietly on the inside when someone says something is "very unique," because something can't be "sort of" one-of-a-kind. (In the same way that a woman can't be "kind of" pregnant.) I realize that people now use it to mean "notably unusual," but we already have lots of words for that -- extraordinary, uncommon and rare all spring to mind, and I'm sure a thesaurus could provide a great many more. What we don't have is another word that means one-of-a-kind, unduplicated and singular. If we lose unique, we lose a little bit of the power of our language.

Many years ago, I saw Oprah interviewing a woman that worked for some news program or another, and she was saying that they tried to avoid using certain words, because they knew (by whatever method they determine such things) that people would tune out and switch the channel if they heard them. The two examples that she chose, which are still seared into my brain, were geopolitical and socialism. My head nearly fell off when I heard this. Both of those terms convey discrete meanings that cannot be duplicated by substituting other, easier words. News programs in particular have an obligation to use the right words to convey the right concepts so the population has the chance (at least) to know what's going on in the world. Without the right words, we lose the thoughts. (Some guy alluded to this in some book he wrote.) If there's one thing to be grateful for when recalling the whole "Joe the Plumber" embarrassment, it's that we were all talking about what is or is not socialism, so that one isn't dead yet.

So when we talk about language, I think the heart of the debate has to be "Does this change enrich or diminish our ability to understand each other, or to create and express new ideas?" If we get something by accepting the change (and I'm willing to accept that we do with conversate), then everyone's a winner. If words and meanings drift further apart because the change, then I'm sticking to my stickler status.

(I realize that this whole rant qualifies me for a nomination to the Nerd Hall of Fame, but I'm at peace with that.)

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