"Very Unique" or, Merriam Webster, I'm calling you out!

I was just reading a very entertaining, surprising, and informative book called Origins of the Specious, which discussed English language change and specifically myths about the origin, pronunciation, and spelling of words. In the afterword to the book, the author, Patricia T. O’Conner, apologizes for being slightly hypocritical: while the overarching “moral” of her book is that language change is inevitable and not necessarily “bad”, she herself has many language annoyances that are probably (soon to be) outdated. One of these is “very unique”.

So the story goes that ‘unique’ originally meant ‘one of a kind’, from the Latin unicus. For centuries it was used this way, and was an absolute term, like ‘perfect’, which could not be modified or intensified. However, its meaning has shifted to a more general sense of unusualness or remarkableness, and people have started using qualifiers in phrases like “somewhat unique” or “very unique”.

Merriam Webster Online also discusses this phenomenon:

I don’t think that Merriam-Webster or O’Conner is paying very much attention to the real-life usage of ‘unique’. I would not say that someone is unique because she is unusual; I would say she’s unusual, or remarkable, or strange, or creative, or nonconformist, or different, or out-of-the-ordinary, or offbeat…and so on. I would say she is unique because I think no one else in the world is quite like her. But everyone is a unique individual - no two people are quite alike - so perhaps I would say she’s very unique because I think she is wildly unlike anyone else in the world. Here, the intensifier is implying the numerous ways in which she is one of a kind. She is very unique - she is unique in many ways.

Actually, why can’t someone be very perfect? Or very dead? (This fellow here is dead, he passed away about five minutes ago, whereas to the left we have an Egyptian mummy…very dead.) I can see why ‘very pregnant’ wouldn’t work out too well, but I think a lot of the time when people are instructing me not to use intensifiers, they’re misinterpreting what I am trying to convey. Food for thought.

Or am I just…very wrong? :smiley:

Ah, but maybe he’s only mostly dead. There’s a big difference between mostly dead and all dead. Mostly dead is slightly alive. With all dead, well, with all dead there’s usually only one thing you can do: Go through his clothes and look for loose change.

There are a lot of restaurants that grill their steaks to, well, perfection. One is tempted to wonder just a teensy bit whether all of those steaks are of the same by-definitition-impossible-to-surpass quality… ah, forget it.

(Last week I heard a sports announcer talking about the enormity of the other team’s offensive line. Now there’s a word whose ‘official’ meaning is not well understood.)

Very pregnant would mean you are really close to giving birth. I’ve heard it in many sitcoms.

Anyways, the people telling you not to use very the way you do know exactly what you mean. They just think that the words you are using do not match your meaning. It boils down to wanting to have words with precise, unchanging meanings. And while it might be nice to be able to be that precise, it isn’t the way language works.