By Dr Oliver Tearle
‘Unique’ is a strange word. It’s often assumed that there are no true synonyms for unique, because the word literally presupposes that the thing or person described as ‘unique’ is truly one of a kind, rather than simply rare. ‘Unique’, some people declare, is a unique word.
But this isn’t true. There are, in fact, many ways in which we can describe something as ‘unique’ without relying, or over-relying, on that one word. Let’s take a closer look at some of the handiest and most useful synonyms for ‘unique’ in the English language.
The word unique is French, as the -que ending suggests. And the uni- part means ‘one’, as in other such words, such as unicycle or unilateral. This part is ultimately derived from the Latin for ‘one’, ūnus. So to be unique is to be, quite literally, ONE OF A KIND – and that phrase can be employed as a handy synonym for uniqueness.
But there are other, snappier ways of saying someone or something is one of a kind, and one of the commonest ways of signalling this is to use a word which suggests that the person or thing had no equal: that such a person, for instance, has no match or equal or peer in their field. Such words include MATCHLESS, UNMATCHED, UNEQUALLED, and PEERLESS.
For instance, ‘George Orwell was a peerless writer of the political essay’ suggests that Orwell was the best writer of political essays and that he alone had a unique ability to write exceptionally well in this form. Or ‘Tchaikovsky’s skill as a composer of ballets is unequalled’ indicates that the author thinks Tchaikovsky had a unique ability when it came to composing ballets.
There are other ways of suggesting somebody stands alone in a particular sphere or field: UNPARALLELED, WITHOUT EQUAL, and WITHOUT PARALLEL are three more expressions which can function as near-synonyms for unique. UNRIVALLED is another good example, but here the emphasis is on the lack of a competitor in some area: for instance, ‘the company’s success in the field of nanotechnology is unrivalled’.
As well as un- words, there are a couple of in- words which are particularly useful for describing uniqueness. These are INCOMPARABLE (without compare: again, without an equal) and INIMITABLE, which is specifically used of people who have a style so distinctive that it cannot be imitated. However, this is a slippery one: surely the writers or personalities with the most distinctive styles are the easiest to imitate, precisely because their style is so distinctive and recognisable?
Of course, what’s meant is that their style cannot be emulated by others, and this is true. Dickens’s prose style is easy enough to learn so one can produce a recognisable version of it, but whatever we right in imitation of him will be lacking in the individual genius which characterised his work. And it’s this quality of genius, this SUI GENERIS aspect, which is truly inimitable.
As for sui generis, this is not a phrase to everyone’s taste, because it’s so obviously Latin and therefore may alienate some readers put off by Latin phrase-dropping. However, it can serve a useful purpose. It means ‘of its own kind’ or ‘in a class by itself’: generis is linked to genre (a class or kind of writing) and genus (a biological type), and other such words.
In other words, sui generis is another way of saying ‘unique’. From the seventeenth until the nineteenth century, this phrase was reserved for scientific writing in English, but for over two centuries now it has been used to describe people and things of all kinds – as long as they are, of course, one of a kind.
A more down-to-earth phrase used to indicate that something is SINGULAR
and unique (in a good way) is SECOND TO NONE, as in ‘his piano-playing skills are second to none’. This phrase means, of course, that the person is second to nobody else, because they are first – or best – at what they do. They ‘come second’ or runner-up to nobody, in other words.
But what if we’re talking about, not a unique person or thing with a particular quality or skill, but a unique situation? UNPRECEDENTED is a good word for such a scenario, since it denotes something which has no precedent: i.e., it has never happened before. In this sense, then, it is unique.
There are also some more near-synonyms for unique which are worth mentioning here. We describe them as ‘near-synonyms’ because they don’t strictly mean the same as unique (singular, one-of-a-kind) but simply refer to something that is rare (or ‘almost unique’, if you like – although this phrase is frowned upon by some, on the basis that something is either unique or it isn’t: either there are other things like it or there aren’t).
Words falling into this category include EXCEPTIONAL, RARE, UNUSUAL, UNCOMMON, REMARKABLE, and DISTINCTIVE.
A trye antonym for unique is perhaps not common, since the word means, as we’ve established, one of a kind. ‘Two of a kind’ isn’t quite an ‘opposite’ in the strict sense. Nevertheless, if we consider some of those broader near-synonyms for uniqueness named above, we might mention COMMON, ORDINARY, COMMONPLACE, TEN-A-PENNY, and USUAL as antonyms for ‘rare’ and thus as near-antonyms for unique.