Is using the word "singular" to describe someone or something unique an outdated adjective?


By a singular piece of good fortune, Mr. Athelney Jones, the well-known member of the detective police force, happened to be at the Norwood Police Station, and was on the ground within half an hour of the first alarm.


OP's example singular piece of good fortune (or luck) is a "stock phrase" that accounts for a significant proportion of all instances of singular piece, which is clearly a declining usage...


I don't think the "literal" meaning of singular as unique applies very often at all. It normally means just odd, unusual, unexpected. Usage has declined, so OP is right to suspect it's "dated".

On the other hand, singularity, which also had its heyday in the early 1800s, is coming back up again in recent decades. Doubtless partly because of mathematical singularities such as black holes, and my personal favourite, The Technological Singularity. Notwithstanding that Wikipedia link, I define this as the day when technological advance becomes so rapid that literally, yesterday's "magic" is today's "routine science", every 24 hours.

  • Is the rarity of "singular piece" merely due to the kind of contexts in which we use "piece of"? For instance, a pie has many "pieces of pie", and no matter which one I'm eating, I'd expect the others to be of comparable quality. =) – rakslice Nov 8 '11 at 5:23
  • @rakslice: it's 'piece of cake' and 'easy as pie'. Piea come in slices, not pieces. – Mitch Nov 8 '11 at 13:15
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    @rakslice: Per my has declined link above, I'm in no doubt the "flowery" use of singular to mean "unusual" has itself declined. But if/when it's [still] used, it often occurs with piece of good fortune/luck. – FumbleFingers Nov 8 '11 at 13:15
  • There (is/was?) also singular stroke of good/bad fortune/luck, which seems a little less dated to me, but even so, most current usages discard the word singular. – FumbleFingers Nov 8 '11 at 13:44
  • I guess it is yet another one of those Victorian nuances that has failed to stand the test of time. – DAWR Dec 7 '11 at 21:13

Yes, it is, although I sometimes use it myself in the comfort of my own home. It is perhaps particularly associated with Jane Austen, as in this, for example, from 'Northanger Abbey':

. . . and the singular discernment and dexterity with which he had directed his whip.

Of course, the noun, singularity, now does service in an astrophysical context.

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