[eDebate] One Off: Uniqueness
Sun Jun 24 18:22:15 CDT 2007
June 24, 2007
By WILLIAM SAFIRE <http://query.nytimes.com/search/query?ppds=byll&v1=william safire&fdq=19810101&td=sysdate&sort=newest&ac=william safire&inline=nyt-per&inline=nyt-per>
Sometimes it takes a foundry to produce a word.
In January of this year, a horse named One Off won the San Marcos Stakes at Santa Anita in Los Angeles.
"The whole basis of political debate has changed," Prime Minister Tony Blair <http://topics.nytimes.com/top/reference/timestopics/people/b/tony_blair/index.html?inline=nyt-per> said when making his triangulated "New Way" pitch in 2000, "and there's a one-off, heaven-sent opportunity to establish a new consensus."
In the splendiferous arts pages of The New York Sun, the critic James Gardner hailed a blue landscape depicting a Greek town by Gregory Kondos as "a seemingly effortless one-off act of visual tact."
"When an obscure Russian company comes to town for a one-off performance of a classical ballet," wrote Gia Kourlas of The Times, "you never know what to expect." In a more sinister vein, regarding the murder of a former K.G.B. agent living in London, The Guardian wrote that "legislation passed by Russia to deal with one-off requests by European countries prohibits the extradition of its citizens." (Expect a Kremlin stonewall.)
Elizabeth Stone of Cincinnati writes that "the meaning of one-off eludes me, and my inquiries have been met with the assurance that it denotes something weird or unique." Weird, no; unique, yes. My fellow (or soror) word maven, Barbara Wallraff at The Atlantic, says that one-off "is popular because we can't trust unique to convey 'one of a kind' anymore; 'one of a kind' is awkward and wordy; 'single' doesn't always have the right implications - that is, one-off meets a need. And it does it in a jaunty, Anglophile way that's to some people's taste."
One-off started as a manufacturing term to denote "the only item of its kind." The newfangled heavy gizmo was produced as an experiment or by accident or by just fooling around creatively with molten metal. The O.E.D. has a 1934 citation from the British Foundrymen's publication: "A splendid one-off pattern can be swept up in a very little time."
A 2003 citation from The Washington Post, however, strikes me as off the mark: "Iraq is obviously pivotal to American national security. But it is a one-off, an unusual case that is unlikely to recur."
I dispute that Post definition. One-off does not mean merely "unusual"; nor does it mean "like Halley's comet," coming back once in many blue moons. The one is off by itself, standing alone, pristine in its singularity. The compound adjective and noun means, in my mind, "without precedent, easily copied but impossible to perfectly reproduce or clone."
My mates at the neologism foundry think that its formal synonym is "prototype." The guys doing the myriad knockoffs in China for slave wages think of it in wonderment as "the original." In geekspeak, it's "offline" - that is, private stuff not available online and certainly not in (ugh!) stores. (Whoever has the first usage of geekspeak, send it along with other definitions of offline.)
Wallraff is right about the degeneration of unique. Those of us still on the burning deck of good usage believe that unique - the paradigm of absolute solitude - can never be modified with an insipid very, quite, rather, almost or practically. But now that the pushovers of permissiveness have sliced and diced the solitary meaning of unique with wimpy adverbs, a fresh expression of splendid singularity, as yet unnibbled by the minnows of murkiness, is welcome.
Try this, from The Daily Telegraph in England, about the chap who runs the Glastonbury Festival: "He's a fantastic eccentric, really, a one-off." That gets across the point that there is nobody the least bit like him in all of Glastonbury. It is not to be confused with onetime, a temporal term that more often means "former" than "only once." What about one-shot? That comes from golf: "The one-shot hole," reported The Westminster Gazette in 1907, "which can just, and only just, be reached from the tee by a fine driver." But by its centennial this year, the term picked up a pejorative connotation, as in "that's just a one-shot," a lucky break by some duffer or amateur hedge-fund investor unlikely to be repeated.
That leaves one-off as the putative new unique. Semantically, however, our borrowing from Britain hasn't settled its meaning yet. We see usages like this from Randy Falco, the new AOL chief executive, earnestly professing his long-term commitment: ''I'm very loyal. I'm not in here for a short ride. I'm not a one-off guy." (Maybe that sense is associated with "one-night stand.")
But wait: If one-off still has a variety of meanings, why abandon the ramparts on unique? For a century, usagists have been holding this line: unique is unique, an absolute adjective like pregnant, no degrees awarded, not to be attacked with modifiers. Even E. Ward Gilman, who devotes two pages of analysis citing great writers who have erred in justifying the barbarian assault in his great Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of English Usage, admits that "there is no denying that many good writers and editors strongly disapprove of unique in its 'unusual' sense, even though it is indisputably well established in general prose."
"Very unique" is not the sole solecism we disagree about, but the lexicographer I have ribbed in this column as Dr. Roundheels offers an appealing compromise: "If you are revising a passage in which unique is modified by an adverb of degree, the way to do it is not to delete the adverb but to replace unique with an uncontroversial synonym, such as unusual or distinctive." I'd even throw in rare and give up singular.
What to call the last person in the world insisting on the absolute virginity of unique? That lone lexie of the future, desperately trying to marshal resistance to the Visigoths of vocabulary, will be hooted at as a one-off.
More information about the Mailman