unicorn

We all know a unicorn is a mythical creature resembling a horse with a single horn projecting from its forehead, but the term has some quite interesting slang uses. The word comes to English via Anglo-Norman, the variety of French spoken in England after the Norman conquest, and ultimately from the Latin unicornis, uni- (one) + cornu (horn).

The earliest appearance of unicorn in English is in the text Ancren Riwle, a monastic manual for female anchorites, written c. 1230. The relevant line, as it appears in the manuscript Cambridge, Corpus Christi College 402, is:

Wummon wrað is wuluene; Mon wulf oðer liun oðer unicorne.
(A woman’s wrath is wolfen; man’s is wolf, or lion, or unicorn.)

Sight, c1500, from The Lady and the Unicorn series, wool and silk, 312 cm x 330 cm. Musée de Cluny – Musée national du Moyen Âge, Paris. Photo © RMN-GP / Musée de Cluny / M. UrtadoCommon medieval typology had the unicorn representing anger or wrath, especially the wrath of God, which was tamed by Christ, represented as a virgin. Hence the myths about maidens taming unicorns. Medieval texts almost invariably represented unicorns as male; evidently there were no female unicorns.

Middle English translations of the Bible and various bestiaries used the word unicorn as the name for the rhinoceros, not a mythical or symbolic beast at all. These were translations of either the Latin unicornis, the Greek μονόκερως (monoceros), or the Hebrew rĕ’ēm. Present-day translations render this last as “wild ox.” From a 1382 Wycliffite translation of Numbers 23:22:

Whos strengthe is lijk to an vnycorn.

In present-day slang, unicorn is used to refer to something that is highly sought after, but extremely rare and perhaps non-existent—not unlike the medieval unicorn. For instance, this usage appeared in the Los Angeles Times in April 1987 about the search for extra-terrestrial life:

“We’re not looking for unicorns but something we know very well exists—evidence of another technology,” said Jill Tartar, research astronomer at University of California, Berkeley.”

This general slang sense has spawned several specific applications of the word. One such comes to us out of Silicon Valley, where a unicorn is a software startup that is valued at over $1 billion dollars, what every venture capitalist wants to find. Unlike most slang usages, we can pinpoint an exact origin for this particular definition. Venture capitalist Aileen Lee first used it in a blog post in November 2013:

We found 39 companies belong to what we call the “Unicorn Club” (by our definition, U.S.-based software companies started since 2003 and valued at over $1 billion by public or private market investors).

An older and very different slang sense is sexual in nature. The word has been used to refer to bisexual men, a mythical creature in the eyes of those who think men must be either straight or gay. This sense appears in The Advocate as early as 2007:

“I’m a unicorn.” That’s what I may as well have said to the handsome man sitting across the table from me [....] “I’m bisexual” is what I actually said.

The term is also used to refer to a bisexual person, and unlike the medieval unicorn usually female, who is willing to have sex with a couple with no strings attached. Urban Dictionary records this sense from April 2010:

A bisexual person, usually though not always female, who is willing to join an existing couple, often with the presumption that this person will date and become sexually involved with both members of that couple, and not demand anything or do anything that might cause problems or inconvenience to that couple.

The word has come a long way from meaning a creature that only a virgin can tame.


Sources:

Brother, Job. “Fairy Tales.” The Advocate. 1 October 2007.

Lee, Aileen. “Welcome To The Unicorn Club: Learning From Billion-Dollar Startups.” Techcrunch.com, 2 November 2013.

Middle English Dictionary, 2014, s. v. unicorn(e (n.).

Newton, Edmund. “Skeptics Spar With Scientists Seeking ETs.” Los Angeles Times, 5 April 1987, OC_B11.

Oxford English Dictionary, second edition, 1989, s. v. unicorn, n.

Urbandictionary.com, 8 April 2010, s. v. unicorn.

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