Onliest the loneliest

Q: The emcee at the old Birdland used to introduce the one and only Thelonious Monk as “the onliest Monk.” Can you tell me something about this usage? Did it originate at Birdland?

A: You won’t find “onliest” in standard English dictionaries these days, but it has a history, a very long one.

It first showed up in English hundreds of years before Pee Wee Marquette used the term to introduce Monk at the original incarnation of Birdland, which was open from 1949 to 1965 on Broadway near West 52nd Street in Manhattan.

The Oxford English Dictionary describes “onliest” as the superlative form of “only,” used “with emphatic force.” Published references in the OED suggest that it wasn’t considered unusual at one time.

It first showed up in writing, as far as we know, in 1581 in Richard Mulcaster’s Positions, a book on childhood education: “It was either the onely, or the onelyest principle in learning, to learne to read Latin.”

Here are the OED’s other citations for the word:

1691, from Anthony Wood’s Athenae Oxonienses: “He was … accounted … the onliest person to be consulted about the affairs.”

before 1777, from Samuel Foote’s Trip to Calais: “It is the onliest method to keep her to one’s self.”

1890, from A Colonial Reformer, by the pseudonymous Rolf Boldrewood (T. A. Browne): “The kindest, wisest, ‘onliest’ thing, under the circumstances.”

1907, from Yesterday’s Shopping: “Comic and humorous songs … Ma Onliest One.”

1956, from Nelson Algren’s novel A Walk on Wild Side: “ ‘You were my onliest,’ he admitted at last, ‘but we only got to B.’ ”

1992, from Jane and Michael Stern’s Encyclopedia of Pop Culture: “Still the liveliest, as well as the onliest venue for rhythm-and-blues performances not packaged as music videos.”

Nowadays, the OED says, “onliest” is “chiefly” colloquial and regional.

It’s easy to see why “onliest” is not taken seriously these days. Its root, “only,” which has been around since Old English, doesn’t seem to need a superlative.

The OED defines “only” as meaning “alone of its, his, her, etc., kind; of a kind of which there exist no more; sole, lone.”

But the fact that a word needs no superlative doesn’t mean that it can’t be modified at all. “One of the only,” for example, is an extremely common idiom.

Say there are two copies of a rare manuscript. We say there are “only two copies.” And a particular copy can be described as “one of the only copies” or “one of only two copies” in existence.

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