The Grammarphobia Blog

Is ubiquitousness ubiquitous?

Q: The question herein to be addressed centers around the so-called word “ubiquitousness” (I frankly contest its claim to the title). Do you agree with the editor who changed my use of “ubiquity” to “ubiquitousness”?

A: We prefer the simpler “ubiquity.” It’s more ubiquitous than the clunky “ubiquitousness.”

You can find “ubiquitousness” in a few standard dictionaries, but “ubiquity” appears in more. And the people who use the English language clearly prefer the shorter word.

Here’s the Google scorecard: “ubiquity,” 5.4 million hits; “ubiquitousness,” 90,000.

When the noun “ubiquity” showed up in English in the early 1570s, it referred to the omnipresence of God.

The word comes from ubiquitas, post-classical Latin for “the omnipresence of Christ or of his body,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary. In classical Latin, ubique meant  anywhere, everywhere, wherever.

The OED’s earliest citation for “ubiquity” is from A Booke of Christian Questions and Answers, Arthur Golding’s 1572 translation of a work by the French Protestant theologian Théodore de Bèze:

“The Vbiquitie or Eueriwherbeing of Christs manhod mainteined by Brentius and certeine others.”

By the late 1500s, according to Oxford, the term “ubiquity” was being used secularly to mean “the ability, or apparent ability, to be everywhere at once.” Today that sense generally refers to “being seen or encountered everywhere.”

By the early 1600s, the term had widened to mean the state of “being present everywhere or apparently everywhere; widespread presence; prevalence, pervasiveness.”

Most of the standard dictionaries we’ve checked now define “ubiquity” loosely as the fact that someone or something is widespread or seems to be everywhere.

This is an example of the freer usage from Oxford Dictionaries online: “I heard more gnatcatchers, but I never did see one, which was a bit surprising given their general ubiquity.”

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.) defines it loosely as the “existence or apparent existence everywhere.”

American Heritage has this example from the 20th-century critical theorist Theodor W. Adorno: “the repetitiveness, the selfsameness, and the ubiquity of modern mass culture.”

The adjective “ubiquitous” showed up two centuries after the noun “ubiquity,” with a similar theological sense: “Of God, Christ, the soul, etc.: present in all places; omnipresent.”

The earliest example in the OED is from Remarks on an Introduction to the History of Great Britain and Ireland (1772), by the Scottish writer James Macpherson:

“When we think him [sc. God] in some matter straitned, or abdridged of room, for his Omnipresence, on the supposition of his essence not pervading this ubiquitous nothing, we seem to forget who he is.”

By the early 1800s, according to Oxford citations, the adjective was being used more generally in reference to a person, thing, quality, and so on that’s widespread, predominant, very common, popular, or omnipresent.

The first OED example is from an 1802 survey of Londonderry by G. V. Sampson: “The almost ubiquitous and perennial daisy, bellis perennis.”

The latecomer in this lot, the noun “ubiquitousness,” was coined in the 1850s by adding “-ness” to the adjective. (The suffix “-ness” is used with adjectives, participles, adjectival phrases, and some other terms to form abstract nouns.)

The dictionary’s first example of the usage is from the April 1852 issue of Colburn’s United Service Magazine and Naval and Military Journal:

“In vain you would track their course … and cry ‘Eureka’, at each bend, fancying you have at length found it [sc. a winding river]. Hopeless delusion! You have yet to learn the ubiquitousness of its character.”

The most recent OED example—from the April 10, 2009, issue of the Daily Telegraph in London—refers to the ubiquitousness of unavoidable ‘musak.’ ”

Help support the Grammarphobia Blog with your donation.
And check out
our books about the English language.