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How unique is ‘unique’?

Q: When I was in knee pants, I was taught that something “unique” is “one of a kind.” But when I wasn’t looking, the uniqueness of “unique” was apparently lost. Do I have to accept that it’s now merely “unusual”?

A: We were also taught that “unique” means “one of a kind,” and that’s the way we use it. You can use it that way too.

But while you weren’t looking, the lexicographers who put together dictionaries acknowledged what most English speakers already believed: “unique” can mean “unusual” as well as “one of a kind.”

Nevertheless, many usage authorities still insist on the traditional view, so feel free to use “unique” the way you were taught. But don’t criticize the people who use the term loosely. They have the dictionaries on their side.

English speakers borrowed “unique” in the early 1600s from the French, who got it from the Romans.

In Latin, unicus means “one and only,” and that’s how “unique” was used in English for more than two centuries.

At first, “unique” was mainly used by scholars and others aware of its Latin roots. For them, “unique” was an absolute term (like “infinite” or “eternal”), so there were no degrees of uniqueness. Nothing could be very or almost or sort of “unique.”

But as the word became more popular in the 1800s, it began losing its uniqueness in everyday usage.

As we say in Origins of the Specious, our book about language myths and misconceptions, writers who didn’t know or care about the word’s history began using it for the merely “unusual” or “remarkable” or “uncommon.”

The watered-down “unique” was often propped up with intensifiers—modifiers like “thoroughly,” “absolutely,” and “totally.” Before long, we had all kinds of uniqueness, from “rather” to “somewhat” to “very” to “most.”

For more than a century, usage guides have complained about the weakening of “unique” and berated “the illiterate” (Henry Fowler’s term) for emasculating it.

The latest version of Fowler’s Dictionary of Modern English Usage, a fourth edition by Jeremy Butterfield, notes that there’s still a “certain amount of hostility” toward the looser usage, and advises readers “to use it with caution.”

However, millions of people have ignored the usage gurus, and dictionaries have joined them. Merriam-Webster’s Unabridged, for example, says:

“Many commentators have objected to the comparison or modification (as by somewhat or very) of unique, asserting that a thing is either unique or not unique. The objections are based chiefly on the assumption that unique has but a single absolute sense—an assumption contradicted by information readily available in a dictionary.”

The Unabridged lists many modern example of “unique” used to mean “unusual, notable,” including a 1956 comment by Arthur Miller at a news conference in London with his wife, Marilyn Monroe. Here’s an expanded version:

When Miller was asked how he saw Monroe, he responded: “Through two eyes. She’s the most unique person I ever met.”

In Origins of the Specious, published eight years ago, we acknowledged that “the horse is out of the barn here,” but we hoped that “it would come back home.”

That was wishful thinking. It’s clear today that “unique” means “unusual” as well as “one of a kind.” Thus does language change.

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