The wording suggest the opposite. Something that is one of a kind is but one of a category of many, if you look at each word non-idiomatically. Why, then, does "one of a kind" mean "unique?"


5 Answers 5


"One of a kind" does mean one of a category, as you say. However, it is one of a category of one, meaning the category only has one thing in it: that thing being referred to.

You also have to appreciate that this phrase is idiomatic. Taking it literally means that the person is one of however many that make up the "kind." It does not expressly say that the "kind" only has one member. Were the phrase more literal, or at least more exact, it might say, "the single of a singleness." Idioms do not make literal sense, though. That's what makes them idioms.


One of a kind could mean 'unique' because other less unique entities may not be one of their kind - with there being multiple entities of a given kind.


"of a kind" definition from dictionary.com:

  1. of a kind, of the same class, nature, character, etc.: They are two of a kind.

So "Two of a kind" means "these two have the same characteristics as each other". It doesn't really say whether there exist other items that are from the same kind; there may be only those two or they may be another two thousand; we don't know.

The phrase "one of a kind" literally therefore means "this item has the same characteristics as itself", which makes no real sense. But it is not used literally, it is used figuratively to mean "no other items shares the same characteristics as this one".

It's almost a joke: "we can't say this item and any other item are two of a kind, so we'll call it one of a kind instead". Imagine a competition which is normally entered by teams of people, but one person enters on their own; people might joke that this person is a "team of one". It's very similar.

Of course, over time "one of a kind" became an idiomatic phrase that stood on its own, and no-one really thinks about whether it makes literal sense or not.

  • Maybe descended from "the only one of a kind" (as in unique), @AndyT? May 1, 2018 at 12:30
  • @EnglishStudent - Possibly, who knows?
    – AndyT
    May 1, 2018 at 12:48

Think of it in terms of taxonomy of genus/species. You are a human but you are one that really stands out among your peers, a prime specimen, as your own type of human. You are one of a kind. Being one of many doesn't necessarily mean that you are not unique when everyone else just blurs together as the same thing. I think this is the essence of what the phrase means. I think it had meaning, but the dialect and slang has changed so much now over years and years it appears idiomatic now, but in reality it isn't.


I was just reading up on this and I think it's a truncated phase. The origin is possibly closer to "only one of a kind," "but one in its kind", and the like, which in completeness and context suggest that the object is of a kind which has only one member. Eventually, it was shortened, as many things are, such that the context is no longer explicit. We assume that the kind has only one member, when that is not the literal meaning. Kinds of one are not kinds at all because the member has no kindred. A phrase that means the same as the idiom would be to say that someone/thing is (from) "a kind of one." Same words, but rearranged to have the same literal meaning as the idiom.

It's little wonder that it is hard to develop autonomous systems for reading and determining the meaning of sentences. There is just so much context that has been dropped over centuries of development.

See: https://www.grammarphobia.com/blog/2017/10/one-of-a-kind.html

  • Hello, Katana. Does the reference include support for your 'The origin is possibly closer to "only one of a kind" '? I can't see any there. If not, this suggestion has already been put forward in a comment above, not promoted to an 'answer' as no evidence was provided. Apr 2, 2022 at 11:57

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