I posted earlier about the adjective unique and a few reasons why I think there are situations in which very unique and the like are reasonable things to say. (These situations include (1) the comparision of different unique things by how common their type is, e.g., something that’s one-in-a-hundred is unique but something that’s one-in-a-billion is very unique, or (2) as a means of qualifying how removed a unique thing is from other comparable things, e.g., a dog that could fly would be unique, but a dog that could fly and talk would be very unique) And you very well may disagree with me that these are things you would say, or you may disagree that these are not the way that people generally use very unique. That’s fine, as my intention with the previous post was to establish merely that it is not logically impossible to have something be very unique, not that the way it is used is ideal. In fact – I think I didn’t make this clear in the earlier post – I prefer to avoid the word unique because it smacks of advertising gimmickry, and very few things are, in my opinion, unique.

renaissanceguy commented in response to the earlier post with a reasonable and nicely stated objection: “I think it is important to have words to express precise concepts. We already have a way of expressing the concept that people mean when they say “very unique,” which is “very unusual”. If something is sufficiently unusual to be one-of-a-kind, then it is good to have a word for it.” I disagree with the assumption of the second sentence that if there is one way of expressing a comment there is no desire for a second, but otherwise I agree. After all, I majored in mathematics, so I am familiar with how pleasant life is when all terms have precise and explicit definitions, and it would be good (I think) if the world lent itself to as cut-and-dried of definitions as abstract mathematics does. However, this is not the case. Very unique does often incur on the domain rightfully owned by very unusual, but this is a matter of the definition of unique often incurring on the domain of unusual, as in:

(1) That’s a unique hat.

The problem is that here unique and unusual blur more than one would think. Take, for example, the site Unique Coat Hangers. The hangers they sell are in one sense not at all unique, since you can buy more than one of the same style. But at the same time, the individual styles may be unlike any other given style of coat hanger one has ever seen. So the hangers of a given style are themselves merely unusual even though the style is unique. This is a weird situation, and sort of tough to wrap one’s head around. It’s no wonder that unique and unusual get interwined, given that complex situations like this are not unusual. (Think of “unique” clothing items, “unique” cars, “unique” ideas, etc. that are one-of-a-kind in one person’s view though merely unusual in the the global view.)

My point is that you could have unique fill a single role, as “one-of-a-kind”, but you’re going to have to specify what kind the thing is the only exemplar of, and that’s a murky problem. Here’s an open question with regards to this: given the sentence

(2) The striped coat hanger was unique amongst those in my closet, and the style was unique amongst those manufactured since 1985, yet my sister had two of the exact same hanger in her house,

is it fair to say The striped hanger is unique? Does your opinion change with the sentence My striped hanger is unique? My opinion is that the first is sort of unacceptable but the second sentence is a bit better. I’m interested in what other people think, though. Can something be unique if anything like it exists elsewhere? Can something be unique within a context (in my closet, to me, in its design, etc.) if something like it exists elsewhere?

If you find the answers to these sorts of questions simplistic, and you can’t think of any situations in which the uniqueness of an item would be open for debate, then you are wiser than me and are perhaps justified in holding the opinion that unique can’t mean unusual. But if you too are having trouble delineating unique and unusual, I think you can see why I am willing to let their usages overrun a bit. (Of course, I am not advocating that unique and unusual have anywhere near identical meanings. I can think of situations in which I would only consider unique acceptable and other situations where I would only consider unusual acceptable.) It would be nice if you could say that unique can only be used for truly “one-of-a-kind” objects, but it’s not possible in practice to do so.  Unique will at times mean something like unusual, and in those sorts of cases, it wouldn’t be surprising or illogical to see modifiers like very, somewhat, rather, terribly, notably, etc. modifying unique.

Summary: Definitions in the world are fuzzy, and they overlap. Unique and unusual aren’t as distinct as one might like to think. Because the category of unique things and the category of unusual things aren’t distinct, it’s reasonable to expect/allow unique to behave like unusual in some circumstances.