I've looked through several online dictionaries to discover the meaning of the phrase "unto itself" ("unto itself" in the sense of the phrase having no qualifying objects, people, or concepts to take the place of the -sth/-sb). But alas, all my efforts at discovering the original definition of the preceding idiomatic phrase are to no avail, as no online dictionary provides me with an adequate explanation. I have been successful in searching for the meanings of its derivatives/variations.

Take Collins Dictionary, for example:

A law unto yourself: "If you say that someone is a law unto himself or herself, you mean that they behave in an independent way, ignoring laws, rules, or conventional ways of doing things".

Unto: "If you say that something is, for example, a world unto itself or a place unto itself, you mean that it has special qualities that it does not share with other, similar things, and so it should be treated or understood differently from those other things".

Other variations include a world unto itself, an island unto itself, a means unto itself, an entity unto itself, a world wholly unto itself, sufficient unto itself***

As I've stated in the introduction, I've been unsuccessful in my bid to discover the one true underlying definition for this elusive idiomatic phrase. Whatever definition I do search for is relegated to only its derivatives; this I find most unsatisfactory in whetting my intellectual appetite.

  • 1
    Unto is similar to into or onto: Focused on, looking in, directed exclusively towards. Commented May 19, 2022 at 12:17
  • He is a law unto himself is often condemnatory (he rides roughshod over our laws & conventions), whereas the near-synonymous He is his own man is more likely to be approving (he knows what he wants and what he thinks, and isn't easily swayed by others). Commented May 19, 2022 at 12:23
  • Unto is used only in fixed phrases like unto the tenth generation and unto Xself. Nobody ever uses it in conversation *You go down Main unto Bay St, then turn left. Commented May 19, 2022 at 18:37
  • But if you look up almost any word in a decent dictionary, you will find different definitions, and often they are contradictory. They often don't have an 'underlying meaning' that applies in all cases. And why expect phrases etc to be all that different? The MWV 'take off' is highly polysemous: impersonate / leave / doff / start flying [of a plane] / use as a holiday / .... The acceptable use of 'begging the question' issue causes people to fall out. What about 'by that [man]' in 'This is a lovely little art gallery. I particularly like the painting by that man in the green beret.'? Commented May 19, 2022 at 18:49

1 Answer 1


The answer is in the preposition "unto" (now somewhat old-fashioned but retained in such phrases as you quote)

OED unto

Indicating spatial or local relationship.

1.a. Expressing or denoting motion directed towards and reaching (a place, point, or goal); = to prep.

Draft additions 1993

unto oneself: all by oneself, without the assistance or presence of any other.

1983 W. Weaver tr. U. Eco Name of Rose 226 ‘But whose side was Dolcino on?’ ‘I do not know; he was a faction unto himself.’

"unto yourself" is the classic prepositional phrase (prep. + NP) that forms a modifier - in this case adjectival:

A law unto yourself = a law (a set of general constraints) that is (are) applicable to yourself alone.

He lives in a world unto himself: = He lives in a world (a mental environment) that is applicable to himself alone.

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