by Dave Howell
Anybody inclined to read this particular essay at all has probably heard somebody cavail against the appalling use of “exact same thing,” or “more unique.” After all, how can something not be exactly the same? Isn’t that what the word “different” means?? Likewise, how can there be degrees of uniqueness? You, Dear Reader, might well have even delivered such a polemic yourself on occasion.
However, after pondering the matter for years, I’m afraid I’ve come to a differing conclusion about degrees of uniqueness. I will press Beanie Babies, those ubiquitous stuffed animal toys, into duty to illustrate my point. One Beanie Baby can, indeed, be “more unique” than the other.
E is, by any reasonable definition, unique. There’s only one. But it’s still a Terry the Turtle. B is also unique. It has wear patterns that allow any careful observer to identify it from a bin of hundreds of other Terrys. But it’s a member of an indefinite production run. To a collector, toys A and B are not unique at all, except as much as they’ll find B less desirable. Nor would they consider C unique, although the person who attached that hat might well say “My Terry’s quite unique, you know.” Beanie D is unique in that there’s only one #83, but again, a collector would see it as merely one out of a set of 100 that were all the same, and a grandmother shopping for toys probably sees D as the same as Beanie A except for a ridiculous price tag and some extra printing on the label, which would get ripped off by the tot receiving it anyway.
“Unique” only has meaning if some things are not unique, and that means grouping similar (but not identical, inasmuch as nothing is truly identical) objects together. All five Beanie Babies are a specific turtle. But Terry the Turtle E is more unique than the rest because it has less in common than the others do.
Whether an object qualifies as unique in the strictest sense depends entirely on which characteristics you consider relevant or not. Taken to the absurd, everything is unique; no two objects have the “exact same” molecular structure, although they could easily be so similar as to be indistinguishable under many circumstances. Any attempt to insist on an absolute definition renders the words meaningless. The instant any two somethings are “the same,” it is because some set of characteristics are being excluded in order to have what remains, match. Identical twins “look the same” to most people, but not to their mother.
Conversely, every human being’s unique, but Pee-Wee Herman, aka Paul Reubens, is more unique than most. “I think you’ll find this resort very unique.” Although their use of hand-washed sand in their “Beach Margaritas” is unique, you might not consider that a significant distinction, nor their 16-hole golf course. And it’s not effective use of English to argue for “this resort is unique, but only slightly different from most resorts, whereas this resort, also unique, is very different from other resorts.”
In the end, “unique” can mean nothing more nor less than “significantly different.” And there are degrees of difference, because there are degrees of significance. There are, thus, unavoidably, degrees of uniqueness.
Personally, I try to avoid using “unique” with modifiers, because there are many educated persons that would consider it sloppy English. But I cannot agree with the statement that it is “wrong.”
On the bright side, to claim that Turtle A is the exact same turtle as Turtle B is wrong. It is bad English. The proper form is “Turtle A is exactly the same as Turtle B.”