This month I’m going to look at two words which through over-use or misuse have lost so much meaning and power they have become pointless sentence fillers, and therefore need to be used with extreme caution in any writing. They are among a group of words and phrases which in recent years have been so watered down that in some cases they might even be considered dead.
The first is ‘real’.
Advertisers are responsible for much of the damage: ‘We asked some real women.’ I don’t know about you but I don’t know any women who are not real. What we’re actually being told is that the opinions we’re about to hear are genuine and not invented for the purpose of selling a product, but using the word ‘real’ is sloppy and destroys the usefulness of the word for other purposes.
Here’s another one, a cookery advert: ‘Using only real ingredients.’ Any ingredient used to cook something must be real; I assume what was actually meant was ‘natural ingredients’ as against chemically created ones. You cannot cook with ingredients which have no physical reality.
And that’s the point of the word: the dictionary says ‘actually existing as a thing or occurring in fact; not imagined or supposed.’ So Henry VIII was a real person, but sadly, Aragorn, King of Gondor was not.
What are our options if we want to avoid ‘real’? The thesaurus has a number of suggestions of which ‘actual’, ‘historical’, ‘tangible’, ‘matter of fact’ and ‘true’ are just a few. You may have noticed that I’ve already written ‘actually’ twice where ‘really’ might have been used, although it would make perfect sense to leave both out and simply say ‘What we’re being told is . . .’ and ‘what was meant was’. Still, for a sensible down-to-earth option ‘actually’ is as good as anything else, as long as we don’t over-use it.
‘Real’ can still be used to point up the seriousness of a situation, as in ‘a real danger of war’, but when describing something such as a ‘real disaster’ I suggest ‘complete’, ‘utter’ or ‘total’ will better convey your meaning.
My second word is ‘unique’.
It’s not advertisers who have destroyed the usefulness of this word, though they may have started the process. Think for a moment and recall how many times you have heard people on the radio or TV say, ‘It’s almost unique’, ‘it’s absolutely unique’, ‘it’s quite unique’, or, combining two dead words, ‘it’s really unique.’ I’ve even heard ‘very unique’, which must be the worst misuse of all.
One of my earliest memories of my father’s insistence on using language accurately is of him saying ‘It’s either unique or it isn’t. Never put any other qualifying word with it.’ So there we are, ‘unique’ is another of those ‘it is or it isn’t‘ words.
If something isn’t unique it might be ‘extremely rare’, ‘hardly ever seen’, ‘only known once before’ or some other phrase. Of course it takes more time and thought to come up with one of those, and so, especially in interviews, the sloppiness takes over and out comes a qualified ‘unique.’
The problem we face as writers is that ‘unique’, which was once a strong and important word, has been so weakened by all the qualifiers attached to it that I wonder if it now has any use at all. It was once a ‘sit up and take notice’ word, but for serious writers I fear it has been killed off and I know of no substitute of equal power.
‘Incomparable’, ‘matchless’, ‘inimitable’, ‘singular’ and ‘unparalleled’ are suggested by the thesaurus, but they don’t have the punch ‘unique’ used to have, and ‘one and only’, ‘none other’, ‘one-off’ and ‘unprecedented’ are not the same at all. In fact as a resident of Cumbria if I hear one more government wallah say that last December’s storms were ‘unprecedented’ I shall scream! As someone in Carlisle pointed out, they said it in 2005 and then again in 2009, and all ‘unprecedented’ means now is ‘Just wait and you’ll see, it’ll be even worse next time.’