Q: I am 74 and grew up in what is now Silicon Valley. When I was a teenager, the phrase “one of” was used to indicate something unique, as in “Hey, man, it’s a one of.” Can you tell me something about the usage?
A: Our guess is that the teenagers you hung out with were using “one of” as short for “one of a kind,” an expression dating back at least as far as the 17th century.
The clipped usage shows up occasionally in writing, as in this example from a 2011 Huffington Post article about disaster relief:
“Rather than ‘one-of’ projects, community literally means a group of interacting organisms sharing a populated environment.”
However, you won’t find the clipped version in standard dictionaries or in the Oxford English Dictionary, an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence.
We also didn’t see it in any of our slang dictionaries. The Dictionary of American Regional English has an entry for “one of,” but it’s used differently to mean an event that one just misses.
Here’s a DARE citation from 1914: “Come within one of … Come near, in the sense of barely to escape … ‘I come within one of breaking my best china platter this morning.’ ”
The earliest written example we’ve found for “one of a kind” (meaning “a unique instance”) is from Primordia, a 1683 work of theology by the English cleric Thomas Tanner:
“And what need Cain have given any name to his City, if there were no other City in the World beside? For names are for distinction, and are useless where there is but one of a kind.”
This example is from an article on antiquities in A New Universal History of Arts and Sciences, a 1759 encyclopedia:
“Singular medals are invaluable. We commonly understand by singular medals, such as are not found in the cabinets of the curious, and are only met with by chance; but in a stricter sense are such whereof there is not above one of a kind extant.”
And here’s an example from The Four Gospels, a 1789 translation of the Greek, with commentary, by the Scottish Enlightenment scholar and clergyman George Campbell:
“A proper name is not necessary where there are no more than one of a kind.”
The OED cites only 20th-century examples in which “one of a kind” is an adjectival phrase meaning “unique.” Here are a few citations:
“Non-recurrent phenomena are one-of-a-kind and uniquely occurrent.” (From Arthur C. Danto’s article “On Historical Questioning,” published in The Journal of Philosophy, Feb. 4, 1954.)
“A one-of-a-kind film.” (From The New Yorker, April 21, 1975, referring to the 1945 movie Children of Paradise.)
“I think of myself standing there in the gallery, surrounded by one-of-a-kind boutique-wear and real pearls.” (From Margaret Atwood’s 1988 novel Cat’s Eye.)
We wrote a post in 2008 about the British usage “one-off,” which began as a commercial term in manufacturing. It was first used in the 1930s as a noun phrase and in the ’40s as an adjective.
In that expression, the OED says, “off” is “used with a preceding numeral to represent a quantity in production or manufacture, or an item or number of items so produced.” Any number can precede “off,” but the OED says the most common is “one.”