What Does “Unique” Mean?

My writing group recently had a lively discussion about the word unusual. I’m old school about it. I use unique only when I mean one-of-a-kind. When something is strikingly different, I use unusual instead.

Am I right? That’s the wrong question. Language (despite what English teachers endlessly tell us – remember I’m one myself!) often does not have right/wrong answers. There are only preferences.

Many people use unique and unusual interchangeably, and recent dictionaries give “unusual” as one of the definitions for unique. So you could decide that I’m a fuddy-duddy for trying to keep them separate.

Here’s where I’m coming from. If unique and unusual mean the same thing, we’re losing a useful word from English. Not everything that’s unique is unusual (my fingerprints, for example). And not everything that’s unusual is unique (such as a snowstorm on Easter).

English is (or should be, in my view) a sharp-edged tool. We lose some of that sharpness when words blend together. Here are some other word pairs that are becoming exact synonyms:

  • verbal/oral (verbal means anything to do with words, including writing; oral is only about speech)
  • imply/infer  (imply means to hint; infer is what Sherlock Holmes used to do)
  • notorious/famous  (notorious means famous for evil; famous means well known for any reason)

We’re on our way to losing the precise meanings of verbal, infer, and notorious. There’s no way to stop that train. But I’m committed to holding off the inevitable as long as I can – and that’s why I wrote today’s post.


4 thoughts on “What Does “Unique” Mean?

  1. Darrell Turner

    Thanks for this post, Jean. I often tell my ESL students that if they understand that “unique” cannot be modified, they will understand something that many native speakers of English do not.

    Other common misunderstandings are using “enormity” to mean “enormous” and using “anxious” to mean “eager.”

  2. Jenna

    Select/Selected also seems to be losing distinction. Too often when I see an advertisement for “Select X on sale,” I think it likely they mean “selected” products are on sale.

  3. ballroomdancer Post author

    That’s one I haven’t seen. But I’ve noticed that -ed endings are disappearing: “Discount Clothing” instead of “Discounted Clothing.”

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