Vance Packard’s classic 50s study The Hidden Persuaders revealed that advertising has all kinds of ways to make us buy what we otherwise wouldn’t. The tactics, he argued, are subliminal; only in retrospect do they seem blatant: “new and improved” comes to mind, as do urgings that you avoid loserhood by being part of the Pepsi “generation.” Those persuaders were “hidden” only to the extent that we failed to give them notice even while being bombarded by them. Once we did, however, we were no longer so easily taken in.

These days we’re under attack by “unique.” Or are we attacking the word? It’s used to extol a car’s style or steerage or suspension, a toothbrush’s concavity, a cold medicine’s capsule, a fragrance’s chemistry, the engineering of a bra, the precision of a nose-hair clipper, the concept of a “personal wine service,” an arts organization’s mission, an exercise machine’s resistance angles. You’d swear its use had been mandated by Big Brother at the highest advertising levels, and that the voice-over actors hired to speak it were told to punch it for all it’s worth.

Inevitably it pops up in general discourse, too. People who say “Oh, that’s very unique” have forgotten, or never learned, that the word means “of which there is only one.” You (or the cops) can rightly say that your set of fingerprints is unique. Like the words “universal,” “perfect,” and “fatal,” “unique” admits to no degree–a humble noun once modified by it is shot upward into empyreal majesty, the realm of the one-and-onlys. And because it performs heavier duty than the words “rare,” “odd,” “special,” even “cool” and “awesome,” we hear it brayed improperly daily, and by people who should know better. If you want to wax enthusiastic, “very unusual” just doesn’t cut it anymore.

Granted, this misuse isn’t new. Decades ago H.L. Mencken wrote in The American Language that “the American of the folk” has a predilection for double comparatives and superlatives–“to ease his soul.” He added, “I myself have heard uniquer and even more uniquer, as in ‘I have never saw nothing more uniquer.'” And in the first supplement to that huge study he noted that the press widely took Winston Churchill to task when it was alleged (mistakenly it turned out) that he’d said “uniquest” in a World War II speech before the House of Commons. That was a more usage-sensitive era.

But it’s the promiscuous use of “unique” that really vexes, partly because it’s impossible to believe that each and every thing alleged to be unique is. And there are times when we’d like to take the word seriously. Several months ago Secretary of the Treasury Robert Rubin defended the Mexican financial rescue plan while trying to allay fears that the United States might bail out other debtor nations by saying that “[the case of] Mexico was unique.” Many hoped he wasn’t being casual with the word.

“For making an assertion like that, Rubin in this age of computers ought to be challenged statistically and in every other way possible,” says William J. Leahy, a recently retired teacher of rhetoric at Harold Washington College and editor of Leahy’s Corner, a political newsletter. “But, of course, he knew he had no important opposition among elected officials. The Republicans seemed to go along with it.

“George Orwell put the easy use of words like ‘unique’ under the headings of ‘pretentious diction’ and overgeneralization. He said that we tend to lean on such words as ‘unique’ in times of great stress, such as wartime or financial crises such as the Mexican situation. The Clinton administration’s decision was perhaps necessarily made in a short period of time, which allows a catchword to be used to make the decision more palatable. These are tricks, and these tricks work quite well. But that’s why we have history–to hold, eventually, such over-the-weekend decisions to account.”

Overuse could be the reason we hear insistent, this-time-we-really-mean-it voices telling us that something is “truly” unique. “Oh, yes, ‘unique’ is certainly overused,” says University of Chicago psychology department chairman David McNeill. “You hear in politics of a unique proposal, a unique program, as I’ve heard of the administration’s plan for welfare reform.

“And when people say ‘truly’ or ‘really’ unique it’s a symptom of what linguists call devalorization, which means much the same as devaluation. It comes from the overuse of ‘unique.’ It’s in reaction to the fact that we’ve drawn the word from its proper niche and are having to make up for it.

“Another one I’ve noticed is ‘world-class,’ which may be more a Chicago phenomenon, in which the thing we’re claiming as world-class, like our symphony, is supposed to be better than anything in New York or LA. Perhaps it’s our way to stretch beyond the coasts and seize the globe. It’s funny, but ‘unique’ goes in one direction, saying this is one of a kind, and ‘world-class’ goes in the opposite direction to elevate a thing to some plane that’s universal.

“But they are alternative strategies for the same end. Both come up in public discourse because of a lack of confidence in what they refer to.”

John Hickey, who teaches marketing at Rosary College in River Forest, says that in his field “unique” is used in a narrower sense, to suggest products never produced until the present. “The computer,” he says, “was once upon a time unique.” He finds that while it’s well nigh impossible to get students to learn how to use “unique” properly, it’s a snap to convey its usefulness in marketing terms.

“Anyone you talk to in marketing will use ‘unique’ in a promotional campaign,” says Hickey. “And they certainly won’t be intimidated by a pedant like me. The word has invaded the vocabulary of promotion and has contaminated the languages of the other three of what used to be called marketing’s four P’s–product, price, and place. So now–and nearly automatically–a product is unique when it’s not, and so forth for its price and the place or places where you’ll try to sell it.”

John Weischhaus, art director at Atlanta advertising agency Tucker, Wayne, Luckie & Co., acknowledges that “unique” is so ingrained in his business that at advertising seminars he hears the query, “What’s your USP going to be?”–your “unique selling proposition.” He admits, “We say ‘unique’ quite a lot in the conceptual stage. We write it to one another and to clients about the products. Because if we’re going to mount a campaign we want to be sure among ourselves what’s unique about it.”

How has it then crept into ad copy? He questions that it has, but then he remembers: “Oh yeah, we’re using ‘unique’ right now. It’s for Counter CR on Chicago-area radio and TV stations. Counter CR is an insecticide. It’s unique because of its ‘performance’–that’s another big word in the trade–the way its contents are formulated and manufactured for greater staying power.”

Ron Lazzeretti believes ad writers are just trying to anticipate clients’ wishes. He and Rino Liberatore formed Two Olives, a production company, after leaving the Chicago agency of Eisaman, Johns & Laws, where they were writers and creative directors. “The first person the ad writer has to sell his idea to,” he says, “is the guy buying the ad. Writers know clients love talking to themselves, and writers tend to play the role of clients when they talk to clients. We looked for magic words both to please them and to make life a little easier for ourselves, and ‘unique’ is a magic word. It’s what clients think will separate their products from the fray. That’s the thing about advertising.

“I don’t feel ‘unique’ is offensive, just that it’s–well, bland. Sometimes you want to tell the client that if everybody’s using ‘unique,’ the word won’t mean anything anymore.”

But it seems there’s something going on here more desperate and urgent than simple overuse.

“Freud made us aware that mistakes–like saying ‘very unique’–are often revealing,” says Northwestern University sociologist Bernard Beck. “America has become a nation of office seekers, clamoring for notice, clamoring for attention. We hear ‘unique’ these days more than we do obvious synonyms like ‘rare’ and ‘unusual’ because they are not positive or tony enough.

“There’s a rejuvenated competition between individuals in modern America, a competition for declining opportunities, also a competition to differentiate yourself from an increasingly large and anonymous pool of strangers.” Today, Beck says, the rash of “unique” usage is “more intense because we’ve globalized the labor market. We’re in competition with everybody. We want to be infinitely mobile, which means we have to do business with people who don’t know us from Adam. We invoke ‘unique’ in the hopes that they will.”

There’s another plausible explanation, of course: our vanishing literacy and shrinking vocabulary, caused by the decline of education and the diversion of our attention from words to mass-produced images. Some may question whether all this pother about “unique” is of any importance. Well, it is–if we care about our language, which gives thought order, ensures clarity, and enables understanding. When Ron Lazzaretti worries that “the word won’t mean anything anymore,” he’s talking about the sapping of its logical force–the reason that it’s the best and perhaps the only word to use if you’re trying to communicate. The logical force of “unique” is itself unique.

“It is not only a matter of logic,” says Theodore M. Bernstein in The Careful Writer, one of his books on English usage, “but also a matter of preserving words that are not replaceable. If we allow the literary unwashed to determine that ‘more unique’ is correct usage, the meaning of unique becomes eroded….Shall we have to coin another word for this idea–‘scrumpish,’ for example? If we do, you can be sure that it will not be too long before the unwashed are using ‘more scrumpish,’ and then we shall have to coin still another word.”

Sure, you’ll find poets and sentimentalists who say that each and every entity in creation is unique. (Didn’t Richard Basehart comfort Giulietta Masina with some such wisdom in Fellini’s La Strada?) But they’re just exploiting the truism that one thing and another thing can’t be the same thing. And so, knowingly or not, they too are glib prattlers of “unique.”

These prattlers are not vealy members of Generation X supposedly outgrowing their “Yes!” and “awesome” phase–they’re sober, authoritative corporate Americans articulating a worldview that more often than not we adopt for ourselves. They’ve inflated “unique” with thousands of gassy claims about things the innocent word was never meant to denote. Imagine yourself as the word “unique”–wouldn’t you feel ill used, cheapened, undone? Which word will they pick on next?

Meanwhile, caveat emptor.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Steve Gillig.