I think of my tuba-playing talents as very unique. Is that OK?
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I would never be one to judge tuba skills. I’m just not judgmental in that way. Don’t know why. Never have been. To place a very next to unique, however, is something I must caution against. Just as tiny future grammar gurus are taught about literally, they are taught that no unique worthy of its uniqueness should associate with a very, a mostly, a little bit or any of their co-conspirators.
In its pure form, unique is the only one of its kind. Something or someone is either unique or not. If your tuba skills are unique, there’s nothing else like them. A little bit unique or a lot unique is to logic what a golf ball is to chess: unhelpful.
However, meanings drift, and since the 19th century a weaker, controversial meaning of unusual or remarkable crept into unique when no one was paying attention, as is so often the way. I’m sticking to the prime meaning and suggest you’re more likely to impress if you do too.
Allowance may be made for almost unique. The second-last remaining exclamatory paradise whydah (it’s a bird with a ridiculously long tail and it thanks you for asking) has the right to call itself almost unique as it awaits the day true uniqueness arrives.
Can I call my novelty barbecue tongs iconic? They’re well known in the neighbourhood.
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Stopping iconic on its march towards global domination is a noble aim, but hope has long left the building, probably to scurry after an iconic Elvis. It’s become the go-to word for anything or anyone remotely famous and representative of something or well regarded. It’s not the shift in meaning from religious imagery that’s the problem, but the numbing overuse that knows no bounds.
Journalists are particularly guilty. A cursory database search covering newspapers of all stripes around Australia brought up dozens of examples pumped out over the course of just a few days.
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This nation has iconic cabins, parkas, moments, songs and bathing boxes. You can pop into an iconic cafe, watch an iconic soap opera, get tourist information at an iconic visitor centre, look up at an iconic lighthouse, curse an iconic swooping magpie or buy tooth-rotting items at an iconic lolly shop. Milk, you might like to know, is an “iconic dairy term”.
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Bear in mind, too, that it’s often best to say nothing. No one needs to be told that the Sydney Opera House is famous or iconic. Even Melburnians know that.
Why hasn’t someone cleaned up the spelling mess?
There’s no pleasing some people. Just because rough, plough, though, cough and through are all pronounced differently, they think something needs to be done about spelling. Faced with a scourge, they urge action. In fact, most of our words are orderly enough, but the offending examples are so common they vex learners born into an English-speaking environment or trying to tame the beast as a second or third language.
Even if we reach a stage where nothing is written by hand and keyboards are obsolete because speech-to-text software is perfect or our devices turn our thoughts into text (aka the end of civilisation as we know it), studies show the importance of good spelling to reading ability.
Suffice to say, our spelling system has plenty of vexing to do yet. Settling on an alphabet long ago with too few letters to cover all our sounds was regrettable. Combine that with factors such as pilfering by English on a grand scale from other languages, a mistake or 20 as spellings became more settled centuries ago and changes in pronunciation. It’s a tangled web we weave even when not trying to deceive.
Lexicographer and spelling reformer Noah Webster left a substantial mark on American English, although not all his changes were adopted. Other prominent individuals and spelling-reform associations have not fared as well.
Even an American president tried to modify the spelling system, and that’s not a reference to Donald Trump’s freewheeling social media habits. In 1906 Theodore Roosevelt ordered the US Government Printing Office to adopt 300 simplified spellings. Hearts and minds were not with him, and he soon backtracked.
Starting in 1934, the Chicago Daily Tribune went on a crusade for “sane” spelling, not giving up on the remnants of its unsuccessful campaign until 1975. Dozens of unorthodox spellings appeared in its articles over the years, including bazar, burocrat, clew, hocky, fantom, hammoc, iland, yern and thoro.
In Australia, a public servant and spelling reformer named Harry Lindgren pushed from the 1960s for a gradual approach to change, starting with e as in bet. Friend would be frend and death would be deth. But they wouldn’t be – his ideas didn’t take off.
The English Spelling Society, based in the UK, has been pushing for simplification since 1908. On it pushes.
A major obstacle to change is our attachment to tradition. Most of us come to an accommodation with the way things are. We learn to spell thousands of words, and it’s the unfamiliar reform suggestions that look odd.
But the problem is thornier than that. If we tried for a simplified, global spelling system, how would we agree on which spellings to adopt? There is no universal accent for people who speak the diverse range of Englishes out there. Whose pronunciation would prevail in a more phonetic system?
And what, my frend, would we do about the mountain of writing in the old spellings? No wonder people feel the need to giv up. Or maybe there’s sumthing to be sed for a gradual aproach.
This is an edited extract from Writely or Wrongly: An unstuffy guide to language stuff by Joanne Anderson. Illustrations: Matt Golding. (Murdoch Books, published October 3)
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