Does the phrase "unusually common" actually make sense?

It's frequently used to imply something along the lines of, "It happens more than one would expect; it's common but you wouldn't think that it is." An example might be, "Contrary to popular belief, it is unusually common for pets to be allergic to their human owners."

But when you take a moment to analyze the lexical definition of the word "unusual", we find

not usual, [not] common, or [not] ordinary; uncommon in amount or degree; exceptional:

Putting the two together in a more literal fashion, it seems that "unusually common" translates to "not usually common", "not common common", or "not ordinarily common"; all three of which are the opposite of what the phrase itself is intended to mean. It seems like one of those phrases, similar to "I could care less", where there is an implied meaning that doesn't match the structure of the words.

  • 4
    I don't think I've personally encountered "unusually common" myself. Or, at least, if I have, it's been unusual, not common. In contrast, "surprisingly common" is unsurprisingly common.
    – Dan Bron
    Commented Sep 27, 2016 at 17:12
  • 4
    @Dan Bron: Haha. But you won't be surprised to learn that "unsurprisingly common" is in fact "surprisingly uncommon". Quite where astonishingly rare fits in I'm not sure, since apparently we're about as likely to be astonished by rarity as commonness (and let's not forget that "commonness" is actually pretty rare itself! :) Commented Sep 27, 2016 at 17:59
  • What's surprising about 'exceptionally common'? Commented Sep 27, 2016 at 18:57
  • You have to treat "not usually common" as "(not usually) common" and not as "not (usually common)" then everything makes sense.
    – cr001
    Commented Sep 27, 2016 at 19:03

3 Answers 3


It totally makes sense.

It is unusually common.

As you said, usually is a synonym and then we have a negating prefix. That let's us rephrase this as.

It's not common that it is common.

Essentially it is a comparison of the latter to the expectation of what it would be. That makes totally sense.

In Entomologist's Weekly Intelligencer (yes, the bug science, not the word science) and similar scientific magazines from the 1850s are the first hits. All those periodicals and books do exactly what you described. Put an occurrence and compare it to the expected result and state. well, that's different.

  • 3
    Although I agree with what you said, I'm not sure that I understand it.
    – Hot Licks
    Commented Oct 27, 2016 at 20:51
  • 1
    "usually is a synonym" An unusual opinion, but not an uncommon one.
    – Phil Sweet
    Commented Oct 28, 2016 at 4:15

If people accept it, it's probably because they're reacting to this phrase as though you were saying "It's surprisingly common."

If you want to be precise, better say, "It's surprisingly common."


The given example explains it pretty well:

Contrary to popular belief, it is unusually common for pets to be allergic to their human owners.

"Popular belief" is that this situation is uncommon, but it turns out to be much more common than such beliefs suggest. It is therefore "unusual".

In this sense, "unusually" is being used as synonym for "unexpectedly" or "exceptionally".

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