unique: being the only one
Imagine this situation: A lady selling her wares on a TV shopping channel tells you that she has a deal you can’t resist. It’s for a unique, one-of-a-kind porcelain Lady Diana doll. There are only ninety left, and one of these lovely dolls could be yours for the low price of blah-dee-blah and ninety-nine cents.
Wait. Unique? How can the doll be unique if there are at least ninety of them?
In this post, we’re going to learn the history of the word unique and its appropriate usage—and also why you should probably not waste your money on TV shopping channels.
English attained unique from French, which got the word from unicus, a Latin word meaning “single, sole.”[i]
Looking at the first dictionary entry for unique, noted above, we can surmise that the word only applies to people, things, and ideas that are the one and only of their kind. For instance, a unique artifact means that there is no other artifact like it. It is the only one in the world.
However, if you look farther down the page in your dictionary, you’re likely to see a different entry, much like Merriam-Webster’s third entry for unique, which merely cites it as meaning unusual. Merriam-Webster’s also has this usage note:
Many commentators have objected to the comparison or modification (as by somewhat or very) of unique, often asserting that a thing is either unique or it is not. 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. Unique dates back to the 17th century but was little used until the end of the 18th when, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, it was reacquired from French. H. J. Todd entered it as a foreign word in his edition (1818) of Johnson’s Dictionary, characterizing it as “affected and useless.” Around the middle of the 19th century it ceased to be considered foreign and came into considerable popular use. With popular use came a broadening of application beyond the original two meanings.[ii]
Where Grammar Party stands
So, does unique mean one and only, or does it just mean unusual? As a copy editor, I will always recommend that a writer use a different word when they use unique to mean merely unusual. A single, and might I add fancy, word to mean one and only is a very useful descriptor. I would even go so far as to say that English needs a word like that. And unique fills that role. When people use unique for any unusual thing, it waters down the word and takes away the uniqueness of truly unique objects (or ideas or people, in some cases).
Is it wrong to use unique willy-nilly? Like so many topics in the realm of word usage, it depends on whom you ask. If you ask Merriam Webster, and I imagine many linguists, you’d be likely to hear that since people are already using unique to mean unusual, there’s no stopping it. (This is called semantic bleaching.) So go ahead and use it as you wish. But if you were to ask me or other red ink-stained copy editors, you’d likely be asked to save unique for its original purpose, to describe something that is one of a kind.
If you agree, as I do, to reserve unique for truly unique things, then you can’t describe something as being very unique or more unique. If something is the only one in existence, and thus unique, then there can’t be something else that is more “the only one in existence.” However, something can be somewhat unique if one aspect is one of a kind but others aren’t. Likewise, something can also be nearly unique.
Word Usage Week
It’s Word Usage Week at Grammar Party. Check back tomorrow for more vocabulary goodness and word nerd controversy.