Tuesday, December 22, 2009

'Unique', how far you've come

Merriam Webster's Online Dictionary gives the following definition for unique:
1 : being the only one : sole "his unique concern was his own comfort" "I can't walk away with a unique copy. Suppose I lost it? — Kingsley Amis" "the unique factorization of a number into prime factors"
2 a : being without a like or equal : unequaled "could stare at the flames, each one new, violent, unique — Robert Coover" b : distinctively characteristic : peculiar 1 "this is not a condition unique to California — Ronald Reagan"
3 : unusual "a very unique ball-point pen" "we were fairly unique, the sixty of us, in that there wasn't one good mixer in the bunch — J. D. Salinger"
synonyms see strange
— unique·ly adverb
— unique·ness noun
usage Many commentators have objected to the comparison or modification (as by somewhat or very) of unique, often asserting that a thing is either unique or it is not. Objections are based chiefly on the assumption that unique has but a single absolute sense, an assumption contradicted by information readily available in a dictionary. Unique dates back to the 17th century but was little used until the end of the 18th when, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, it was reacquired from French. H. J. Todd entered it as a foreign word in his edition (1818) of Johnson's Dictionary, characterizing it as “affected and useless.” Around the middle of the 19th century it ceased to be considered foreign and came into considerable popular use. With popular use came a broadening of application beyond the original two meanings (here numbered 1 and 2a). In modern use both comparison and modification are widespread and standard but are confined to the extended senses 2b and 3. When sense 1 or sense 2a is intended, unique is used without qualifying modifiers.
Generally, I'm in agreement, but the following from the New York Times, gave me pause:
The organ, the Craighead-Saunders, is a unique instrument, not only because of its lovely sound, but also because it is a nearly exact copy of a late Baroque organ built by Adam Gottlob Casparini of East Prussia in 1776. The original stands in the Holy Ghost Church in Vilnius, Lithuania.
I suppose one could argue that it is the one and only copy, (i.e., that the original is not a copy), or that being only a "nearly exact copy" it had no twin, but were either of these blanched meanings really the one intended?

Saturday, December 05, 2009

Google chooses Collins COBUILD dictionary

Google launched its new dictionary service this week. Poking around, I randomly came up with the word attribute and tried it out. The defining style was immediately familiar, so I jumped over to the Collins website, and searched for attribute there. The two entries are not identical, but they're close enough as to show this is almost certainly Google's source. Here's Google's entry:

  • If you attribute something to an event or situation, you think that it was caused by that event or situation. VERB
    • Women tend to attribute their success to external causes such as luck. V n + 'to'

  • If you attribute a particular quality or feature to someone or something, you think that they have got it. VERB
    • People were beginning to attribute superhuman qualities to him. V n + 'to'
    • attribution N-UNCOUNT oft N 'of' n   /'ætrɪbj'uːʃən/
      • There's usually a lot of attribution of evil intent to those who have different views.

  • If a piece of writing, a work of art, or a remark is attributed to someone, people say that they wrote it, created it, or said it. VERB usu passive
    • This, and the remaining frescoes, are not attributed to Giotto. 'be' V-ed + 'to'
    • ...a Madonna and Child attributed to Pietro Lorenzetti. V-ed

  • An attribute is a quality or feature that someone or something has. N-COUNT usu with supp
    • Cruelty is a normal attribute of human behaviour.
    • He has every attribute you could want and could play for any team.

  • Followed by the Collins COBUILD entry:
    (FORMAL)If you attribute something to a personthingor eventyou believethat they cause it or have it. Women tend to attribute their successto luck... People were beginning to attribute superhuman qualitiesto him.verbIf a piece of writing or a remark is attributed to someonepeoplesay that that person created it or said it. ...a play attributed toWilliam Shakespeare.n-count[ˈætrɪbjuːt]An attribute is a quality or feature. Cruelty is a normal attribute ofhuman behaviour.
    What do you think? Notice that while the wording differs here and there, and Google has more senses listed, it's strikingly similar. Even some of the examples are the same.

    I think it's a great choice. The COBUILD was revolutionary when it came out, and it's still a damn fine dictionary.