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widespread & ubiquitous

I was lately chatting with some word sommeliers. One of them spoke of a patron who had a fondness for ubiquitous. That by itself, as long as not taken to excess (ubiquitous should not be ubiquitous), is a perfectly civilized thing. The patron in question, however, wanted it served first with less, which seemed fine enough prima facie, and then with very.

Very ubiquitous! That’s a bit of overkill, now, isn’t it? Though its classical meaning is “everywhere,” ubiquitous may admit comparisons of degree because of its common usage to mean “seemingly everywhere.” But it is, in that use, a deliberate overstatement, like antediluvian and sesquipedalian. So very ubiquitous either kills a fly with a thermonuclear device or threatens to weaken the sense of the word. Or both.

The first word sommelier and I agreed that one need not pour sugar in Coke, as it were; very ubiquitous was excessive. But then another word sommelier present suggested using widespread rather than ubiquitous at all, since that’s really the more literally accurate word.

Well, some people are more inclined than others to view literal accuracy as a virtue. But are these two words, ubiquitous and widespread, really interchangeable? My tongue finds them rather different, and suited to different contexts. Widespread presents more of a mass-object picture, like peanut butter all over (the image of spread is inescapable), and has a sweeping feel; ubiquitous more readily calls to mind individual points (in great number), and has a more punchy feel with the short, tight biq versus the longer, more open diphthong in wide. The greater number of syllables in the same amount of time and text adds to the feeling of quantity. There is also the pointillism of the two voiceless stops, whereas widespread buries its one voiceless stop between a fricative and a liquid and ends both syllables with the denser [d].

And then there is the matter of register. Widespread is a garden-variety word made of two Anglo-Saxon parts, and it’s reasonably common. Ubiquitous is a word that bespeaks university education, and though it may be used in casual conversation, it marks the user as erudite. It comes, of course, from Latin (the root is ubique, “everywhere,” from ubi “where” and the enclitic que “and”). It is hardly more than one-tenth as common.

And what are they most often used with? The Corpus of Contemporary American English points up the differences well. The most common words found by widespread are use, among, support, despite, acceptance, belief, and, slightly farther down, concern, corruption, perception, and poverty, and a host of abstract concepts and moods, as well as mass nouns of phenomena such as looting and destruction. It is, in short, a word for mass objects, often abstract ones.

For ubiquitous, on the other hand, the top collocations are become, presence, nearly, computing, nature, feature, virtually, yellow (as in cabs, Post-Its, shirts, logos – is there something about yellow that makes ubiquity more salient?), plastic, and, farther down, phenomenon, coverage, Microsoft, coffee, increasingly, internet, and a host of countable concrete objects. And it is those countables that really set the tone. Ubiquitous is a word for bugs and bank machines. And Tim Hortons, naturally.