30 January 2010

"Unique" is a very unique word

I have always used "unique" in a binary fashion, defining something that is the only one of its kind.  As such I have considered modifying adjectives to be inappropriate.  This morning I learn that I am apparently "behind the times."  Here's part of the entry at Merriam-Webster online:

1 : being the only one : sole
2 a : being without a like or equal : unequaled
2 b : distinctively characteristic : peculiar 
3 : unusual

usage 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 (here numbered 1 and 2a). In modern use both comparison and modification are widespread and standard but are confined to the extended senses 2b and 3. When sense 1 or sense 2a is intended, unique is used without qualifying modifiers.

And I can't resist adding: Q: How do you catch a unique rabbit?  A: Unique Up On It. And - Q: How Do You Catch A Tame Rabbit?  A: Tame Way, Unique Up On It.


  1. You really should try harder to resist your very unique impulse to try to regale us with corny jokes. TYVM.

  2. How do you shoot a pink elephant?

    -With a pink-elephant-gun.

  3. how do you shoot a grey elephant?

    -With a grey-elephant-gun?

    Oh, No,no,no
    -You tickle him pink, and shoot him with a pink-elephant-gun!

  4. Thing is, we have other perfectly good words for 2b and 3. We ought, IMHO, to reserve "unique" for senses 1 and 2a.

  5. I'm not sure it has to be about a difference in meaning, really. It seems to me that sense (2a) can be paraphrased as "different from everything else". Now, can you say "very different from everything else"? Sure you can, and that's what "very unique" means.


  6. "Very unique" makes me grind my teeth. So does "enormity" when it's used to express "magnitude."

    But I'm an old fudd, and will be dead soon, so you kids should go right ahead and use the English language any way you want until you devolve back into grunts and hand gestures because no one can remember what the words meant.

  7. @Jerry - re my view of enormity, see my post from July 2008 -

    and especially the one from June 2009 -


  8. Jerry Smith, I agree wholeheartedly.
    Unique means singular, one of a kind, not almost one of a kind, or very one of a kind, that word, unique, says all it needs to say.

    As Minnesotastan says, binary, on or off. Either unique, or not unique. One or the other, black or white, no shades of grey.


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