I know that there is a precise word which refers to a single surviving copy of a printed text, but I can't recall it or find it anywhere in my notes. Help?

  • 1
    "Archival copy" sorta fits your description.
    – Hot Licks
    Sep 29, 2017 at 13:14
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    I mostly see a phrase, "single/sole/only extant copy". I don't know of a single word for this, but maybe the phrase will help you in your search.
    – 1006a
    Sep 29, 2017 at 13:43
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    There is hapax legomenon, but that refers to a single occurrence of a word within a work, not a single copy of the work itself.
    – Andrew Leach
    Sep 29, 2017 at 14:04
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    Is there any chance this is a misremembering of 'incunabula'? That being books printed between the invention of moveable type and 1500, and hence pretty rare?
    – Spagirl
    Sep 29, 2017 at 14:07
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    @HotLicks no, the existence of an archival copy implies other copies extant. Sep 29, 2017 at 15:29

2 Answers 2


Unica / Unicum

Google Definition: a unique example or specimen.

Example use: “The concept of a unicum is difficult for the average library user to understand, since books, by their very nature, exist in more than one copy. That’s the genius of Gutenberg’s invention, after all,”

This quote is from an article explaining a University of Illinois project to scan books that exist in only one copy. The article is here

The university project is called Project Unica

  • Cool -- is this word considered (by anyone other than those on the project) to be in common use? Sep 29, 2017 at 15:28
  • @CarlWitthoft Admittedly, its a new word for me. I liked the idea of extreme rarity so much, I did some google research to find a description. If there is something more common, hopefully someone will post it.
    – am21
    Sep 29, 2017 at 17:12
  • Google sources their definitions form oxford living dictionaries. en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/unicum
    – jxh
    Sep 29, 2017 at 18:20
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    That a rare thing should have a rare name is to be expected,
    – fdb
    Sep 29, 2017 at 18:38
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    +1 It may be worth noting, however, that this term does not necessarily imply that there ever was more than one copy; some items (and books) are unica from the beginning (e.g. probably the bound trial transcripts described in the linked article or a one-off illuminated manuscript).
    – 1006a
    Sep 30, 2017 at 14:13

The German term is "das Unikat" (not limited to books), and my dictionary tells me the translation is the old and slightly obsolete english noun "unique".


Chambers 21st Century Dictionary says: "anything, especially formerly a coin or medal, of which there is only one copy"

  • 2
    Checking the OED, there is a citation to support this use: 1923 Inland Printer Mar. 870/1 "Several [sc. Bibles] are uniques, whose value can not be estimated." I would suggest including this definition in your post (it's almost the same as the one definition in the OED).
    – Laurel
    Sep 29, 2017 at 20:30
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    unicum : late 19th century: from Latin, neuter of unicus ‘unique.’ +1
    – Mazura
    Sep 29, 2017 at 22:49

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