Is this word still one of a kind?

A friend asks: Is “unique” still unique? Or is it OK to say something is “more unique” than another thing? Can something be “somewhat unique”? Or is one of a kind still one of a kind?

On one side is the dictionary, which is more generous with the word. Here’s what Dictionary.com says:

The earliest meanings of “unique” when it entered English around the beginning of the 17th century were “single, sole” and “having no equal.” By the mid-19th century unique had developed a wider meaning, “not typical, unusual.”

Some writers seems comfortable with this use of the word. CNNSI.com, for example, recently posted a slideshow that documented the “most unique hair in the NBA.” Newsmax offered an ordered list of the “most uniquely American cities and towns.” (Chapel Hill, where I work, trailed only Wichita and Madison in uniqueness.)

On the other side is the AP Stylebook. It maintains that “unique” still means one of a kind. AP advises: “Do not describe something as rather unique, most unique or very unique.”

I side with the AP, especially in news stories and other professional situations. In news, we often write and edit stories about things that are the first or the only. That makes “unique” useful. It’s an unusual word with a definition worth fighting for.

UPDATE: Ken Jennings of “Jeopardy!” fame offers his take on “unique” and “one of the only.”

2 thoughts on “Is this word still one of a kind?

  1. I’m usually in the AP camp, too, but “most unique hair in the NBA” makes sense to me. At some level everyone’s hair is unique, but some hair is also unique or rare at other levels, such as color, length, and style. The hair with the greatest number of unique or nearly-unique attributes is the most unique hair.

    Why anyone would write a story on the subject is a greater mystery.

  2. two authoritative dictionaries’ definitions of “unique:”

    Websters Third New International Dictionary (c1961, cMerriam-Webster)
    “1 a : being the only one: SOLE”

    and

    the Oxford English Dictionary:
    ” 1. Of which there is only one; one and no other; single, sole, solitary.”

    I’m going with the AP here. Also, in hard-to-control-librarian eagerness, I’d like to point out that both of these authoritative dictionaries are available online for free to UNC faculty & staff at http://eresources.lib.unc.edu/eid/subject.php?subjectName=Reference

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