Q: I grew up with the understanding that “singular” as a descriptor of human behavior was closest in meaning to “strange” or “weird.” But nearly all such usage of “singular” I’ve encountered in contemporary writing seems closest in meaning to “unique.” Whichizzit, pray tell?
A: As a grammatical term, “singular” is a noun and adjective used in reference to a single entity, as opposed to “plural.” But in ordinary usage, “singular” is an adjective meaning remarkable, uncommon, out of the ordinary, or—as you’ve found—unique. And this wider usage appeared in English before the grammatical sense.
Both uses of “singular”—the grammatical meaning and the sense of remarkable or unique—ultimately come from the Latin singularis (alone of its kind). And both English senses were common in Latin. Here’s the story.
When the adjective “singular” first appeared in early 14th-century English writing, it had a range of meanings characterized by singleness, unity, separateness, individuality, or being out of the ordinary, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.
Many of these early meanings are now rare or obsolete, like alone, apart, solitary, separate, individual, sole, exclusive, and private.
But the general meanings of “singular” that are still around today also developed in the first half of the 14th century, such as remarkable, extraordinary, unique, unusual, uncommon, rare, and special. The University of Michigan’s Middle English Dictionary cites several such uses.
For instance, in the Psalter of Richard Rolle of Hampole, written sometime before 1340, the devil is described as “the wild best [beast] that is of syngulere cruelte [cruelty],” and a godly woman is said to be “in synguler ioy [joy]” of Christ.
The dictionary also cites some later 14th-century examples of “singular” in these senses. We like this one, which uses the phrase “singularly singular” in describing the phenomenon of the rainbow:
“Þe reyne bowe … is in many manere wise dyuers [diverse], and singulerliche singuler.” From On the Properties of Things, John Trevisa’s translation, sometime before 1398, of De Proprietatibus Rerum, an encyclopedic Latin work by Bartholomaeus Anglicus.
(The adverb “singularly,” by the way, also dates from before 1340 in the writings of Richard Rolle of Hampole. But early on it meant solely. John Trevisa was apparently the first to use it in the sense of unusually or especially.)
In the late 1300s, “singular” began appearing in its grammatical sense, defined this way in the OED: “Denoting or expressing one person or thing. … Opposed to plural.”
The dictionary’s earliest example is from John Trevisa’s translation, dated sometime before 1387, of Polychronicon, a Latin chronicle written by Ranulf Higden earlier in the 14th century:
“Kynges þat regnede þere after hym … were i-cleped Antiochi, and everiche in þe singuler nombre was i-cleped Anthiochus” (“Kings that reigned there after him … were called Antiochi, and each in the singular number was called Antiochus”). We’ve expanded the quotation for context.
In Old English, spoken from roughly 450 to 1150, the adjective anfeald (literally “onefold”) meant “simple,” “plain,” and “uncomplicated,” as well as “singular” in the grammatical sense.
(Oxford notes that the “Latin singularis appears in the grammatical sense from the time of Varro onwards.” Marcus Terentius Varro, author of De Lingua Latina [On the Latin Language], lived from 116 to 26 BC.)
The adjective “singular” also has technical meanings in logic (dating from the 17th century) and in mathematics (19th century).
As for the noun “singular,” it’s mostly used today in its grammatical sense, defined in the OED as “the singular number; a word in its singular form.”
The dictionary’s earliest citation is again from John Trevisa’s translation of De Proprietatibus Rerum in the late 1390s. This passage is about the forms of the Latin word porrum (leek), a noun that’s irregular in gender:
“Porrum is hoc Porrum [leek, neuter] in þe singuler & hii porri [leeks, masculine] in þe plurel.”
In medieval times, as you can see, Trevisa was a singularly prolific translator.
[Note: This post was updated on June 19, 2022.]