Words with clean sharp edges

I don’t usually have any trouble telling when a particular usage is wrong.  Sometimes when I try to say just what is wrong about it, it takes longer.  But then when I try to think why is it really harmful to the language—I have a tender brotherly love of the English language—I run into difficulties.  I have a case in mind and I will get to it shortly.

I know what’s wrong with “very unique.”  Unique is an endpoint word; a polar word.  It means “unprecedented” or “one of a kind,” depending on whether you want to approach it temporally or structurally.  Imagining that unique is on a sliding scale of some kind so that it could be “more” or “less” destroys the contribution it makes to the language.

I’ve been bothered lately by the warnings at the beginning of movies or previews that parental guidance is suggested because of “mild language.”  When I was young, I was taught that mild language was a good thing in most circumstances.  I was told that “a soft answer turneth away wrath,” and I infer from the Elizabethan form of the verb, that it is a quotation from the King James Bible.  The truth is that sometimes it does and sometimes it doesn’t, but that’s pretty good for wisdom literature, I think.  I suppose that “mild language” is a truncated form of “mildly offensive language,” meaning that it will offend some but not others or that it will not offend anyone very much.

That’s a good thing to know.  I’m happy to have that little warning.  It does have the effect of transposing language into a setting where it is like a disease or a disability.  Like “a mild sprain,” for instance.  You could argue that there is no harm done because no one mistakes “mild language” for anything other than a warning, but that’s what they said about “tax relief,” and tax relief has the not at all benign effect of casting “taxes” as the kind of thing from which we ought to have relief, as it if were stomach acid.  Taxes, as Oliver Wendell Holmes said, are “the price we pay for civilization.”  They are not like stomach acid.

This morning’s New York Times rubbed that little tender spot in my neocortex where my affection for thoughtful language use is located.  Here’s the quote.  Achal Prabhala is an adviser to the Wikimedia Foundation.  He would like to see other kinds of references serve the function that only authoritative citations now serve.

“There is this desire to grow Wikipedia in parts of the world,” he said, adding that “if we don’t have a more generous and expansive citation policy, the current one will prove to be a massive roadblock that you literally can’t get past. There is a very finite amount of citable material, which means a very finite number of articles, and there will be no more.”


What does a statement like that mean for finite? [this image is called “finite differences;” I don’t know why.]  I have always understood that infinite is a polar term like unique.  There is that final node on the scale—the very end of it—and then there is everything else.  There is “not finite” at the very end and then the entire rest of the scale means “finite.”  You could say it isn’t a scale at all: it’s like an off/on switch.  Things are either finite or they are not but nothing is “very finite.”

What’s the harm?  It’s hard to say.  I haven’t adjusted yet to “limited income” to mean “low income.”  Limited income?  That’s a problem?  But “very finite” seems worse, somehow.  It is as if you could have a substance that is very very finite and then one that is exactly finite and then one that is just barely finite and then, finally, one that is not finite at all, i.e., “infinite.”

Does this prepare us to hear, at a public hearing on gas prices, that the prices are high because supplies of petroleum are “finite.”  What source of power isn’t finite?  Solar power is finite.  But once the water is muddied, it is hard to see anything clearly and to me, this use of finite muddies the water.

Is there some good new use for muddy water that I haven’t heard about?



About hessd

Here is all you need to know to follow this blog. I am an old man and I love to think about why we say the things we do. I've taught at the elementary, secondary, collegiate, and doctoral levels. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. I have taught political science for a long time and have practiced politics in and around the Oregon Legislature. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. You'll be seeing a lot about my favorite topics here. There will be religious reflections (I'm a Christian) and political reflections (I'm a Democrat) and a good deal of whimsy. I'm a dilettante.
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1 Response to Words with clean sharp edges

  1. Bonnie Klein says:

    Having endured yesterday two hours of meetings on changes to our insurance, retirement, and evaluations, and another three hours on new programs and policies to be implemented this year, I woke up this morning numb, a feeling which thawed only to confusion by lunchtime.

    I agree with you about “mild language” and “very unique.” To go another step (backward, I think), I’d just like people to understand what they themselves are saying.

    The gem from yesterday’s meeting came from a motivational speaker (whom we paid!): “You can’t just sit back on your head honchos and expect anything to get done.”


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