That’s “unique”

by little red pen

An interesting conversation came up on Facebook the other day about whether it’s possible to talk about a film being “more unique”. I’ve wound myself into knots trying to think my way through this, and I need your brains, dear readers.

As I read it, the conversation was about the definition of “unique”, but perhaps also about how it can be meaningfully or usefully used. And my first bit of wondering was about whether the trick to using the word in a meaningful way when talking about films (or people) is to attach the adjective to a more specific noun or characteristic.

I can see that describing a particular film as unique is meaningless if we argue that films have so many variables and characteristics that each film is unique — it’s not like the one yellow pebble in a box of blues and browns, where there are few characteristics and most of them are uniform or shared. And following that line, to say that every film is unique is true, but a platitude, so we don’t want to go there.

But I think it could be useful to say something like, “The director’s vision of New York is unique” or “The filming of bridges is unique” — narrow the field of reference and it starts to make more sense to talk of something being one of a kind, rather than similar to or the same as others.

Maybe a litmus test is to think of the non-unique examples: the director’s vision of New York that’s pretty much like someone (or everyone) else’s, the way of filming of bridges that you’ve seen before. If it’s easy enough to come up with other, non-unique (or standard or shared) ways of doing the same thing and you can’t think of another film that does it the same way as the one you’re referring to, then I think you’ve got a good case for meaningful or useful uniqueness.

But definitely no “more” or “less” in the picture.

And then I started wondering if there’s a problem with saying that “unique” or “one of a kind” means that nothing else is exactly the same as it (which is why films and people are all unique). Maybe “unique” means something more like “there’s nothing else like it” or “there’s nothing else similar to it”. So then what we’re talking about is a film that sits in a category all its own, a film that doesn’t have peers or siblings or imitators or close antecedents. And then it’s clear that a film can’t be more or less unique — it’s either out of the box altogether, or in it and playing with its mates. I think that looking at it this way, some films could be unique where others are not, but still no film could be more or less unique than another.

Or, we could scrap all that and say that every film (and person and bus-stop) is unique, and the only meaningful conversation we can have is about what makes a particular film/person/bus-stop unique.

What do you think, writerly, travelling, thinky, wordy, arty,  crafty, wandery friends? Please tell me where I’m wrong, where I’m right, and what I’ve missed. But gently, hey.