Lately in the news I’ve been struck by an overuse of the word “unimaginable”. Lets take a look at some examples. The first time I noticed this trend was in coverage surrounded the foiled not-even-close-to-execution plot to take down planes with liquid bombs. Here’s a quote from Deputy Commissioner Paul Stephenson of the Metropolitan Police:
… It is a very, very serious plot… Put simply, this was a plot to commit mass murder on an unimaginable scale.”
Next I saw an article in the metro (I can’t find the original quote) talking about how the returning student population was stressing the road system on top of the problems with the big dig tunnels, that one flat tire or accident could cause “unimaginable gridlock”. Searching for this article in google found this quote from a fiction excerpt instead:
The camera switched to an aerial view recorded earlier showing a scene of unimaginable gridlock stretching to the horizon in all directions.
Which is ironic, because given an aerial view, one doesn’t even have to use imagination! Another example of this use is about the evacuation preceeding hurricane Rita:
The evacuation triggers unimaginable gridlock, which in turn sparks anger, exhaustion and confusion
My final example comes from the public editor’s column in todays New York Times. The article is on the accuracy of polling data, and this quote is at the end of a paragraph on false precision.
The survey would have to interview unimaginably many thousands for that zero point eight to be useful.
I wonder whether these seemingly incorrect uses of the word unimaginable are a failure of vocabulary or of imagination?
Let’s revisit those quotes:
“mass murder on an unimaginable scale”: I can certainly imagine mass murder. In fact I don’t have too, because I could read about Hitler or Stalin. Blowing up ten airliners would kill three thousand people give or take. The death toll at the world trade center was 2,752.
“unimaginable gridlock”: I’m pretty sure I can imagine lots of cars waiting to go someplace, slowly.
“unimaginably many thousands”: I can imagine lots of thousands. How’s a million thousands. In fact in a survey, one could actually calculate (imagine that!) how many thousands it would take to have precision down to the tenth of a percentage point. Got math?
Time for some imagination.