Discuss word origins and meanings.
Post Reply


Post by Ken Greenwald » Sun Mar 17, 2019 3:12 am

Over the last several months I have seen the word “unicorn” used in a way which I am not familiar with. I wrote down a quote I saw in the NYTimes last month, but was jolted into looking into it when I came across it again in a magazine I was reading. Here are the two quotes:
<2019 “The Next Wave of ‘Unicorn’ Start-Ups: Uber and Airbnb were part of an early generation of tech start-ups that quickly reached $1 billion in value. The up-and-coming generation is looking very different.”—NYTimes, 10 February.>
<2019 “Looking for unicorns: Last September, a data scientist . . . tweeted: ‘As a rule of thumb, you can expect the transition of your enterprise company will be 100x harder than your transition to mobile.’ . . . AI (artificial intelligence) and machine learning are seen as magic fairy dust.’ . . . Those steps might look seamless for Google, Netflix, Amazon, or Facebook. They’re also luxuriously staffed with PhDs in data science, computer science, and related fields. ‘That’s different than the rank and file of most enterprise companies . . .’. Indeed, smaller companies often require employees to delve into several technical domains. . . People adept at all those things are “not easy to find . . . ‘It’s like unicorns, basically. That’s what’s slowing down AI or machine-learning adoption.’”—MIT Technology Review, Volume 122, No. 2, March/April, pages 84-86>
unicorn: noun and adjective

1a) A mythical, usually white animal generally depicted with the body and head of a horse with long flowing mane and tail and a single often spiraled horn in the middle of the forehead.

1b) An animal mentioned in the Bible that is usually considered an aurochs, a one-horned rhinoceros, or an antelope

2) Something unusual, rare, or unique. <There's the elusive unicorn: headphones that do everything well and work in any situation.> <In Washington, D.C., truth is now a veritable unicorn>.

3) Business/Finance: A relatively new company, usually less than ten years old, in particular a start-up, that is valued at $1 billion or more by public or private investors. <A tech unicorn in Michigan is even more of a rarity, far from Silicon Valley's investor echo chamber.> <The blockbuster initial public offering is expected to kick off a revitalized market this year, encouraging IPO debuts by other unicorns, the privately held start-ups whose hefty venture capital funds have allowed them to avoid Wall Street and the legal requirements of a public offering.>

Etymology: Middle English: via Old French from Latin unicornis, from uni- ‘single’ + cornu ‘horn’, translating Greek monokerōs. First known use in 13th century with meaning defined in 1a.
The Business/Finance meaning was coined in 2013 by venture capitalist Aileen Lee, choosing the mythical animal to represent the statistical rarity of such successful ventures.

(MerriamWebster.com, Dictionary.com, OxfordDictionaries.com, and

The following quotes are from archived sources:
<2015 “A ‘unicorn’ startup agreed Friday to a deal that values the company at less than half the billion-dollar valuation it received just two years ago.”—MarketWatch.com, 4 September>

<2016 “Co-founders Kokinos and Yoo declined to say whether the deal means Fuze has become one of the ‘unicorn’ startups to achieve a $1 billion private market valuation.”—The Boston Globe (Boston, Massachusetts),10 February>

<2017 “Venture capital is paying more attention to local startups; one Ann Arbor startup, Duo Security, which provides computer services, recently received a valuation of more than $1 billion, the region’s first ‘unicorn’ or high-valuation start-up in many years.”—Detroit Free Press (Detroit, Michigan), 19 November, page B3>

<2018 “Tech ‘unicorn’ Uptake still employs about 750: . . . The company isn’t the only unicorn in Chicago that is experiencing setbacks.”—Chicago Tribune (Chicago, Illinois), 10 January, page 2-4>

<2019 “If Silicon Valley’s unicorn bubble bursts, what legacy will it leave?”—TheGuardian.com, 3 February>


Ken Greenwald – March 16, 2019

Re: unicorn

Post by Phil White » Sun Mar 17, 2019 1:43 pm

Unsurprisingly, the context that springs to mind in the UK at present is Brexit. Plenty of people have taken up the unicorn metaphor over the past couple of years.
Signature: Phil White
Non sum felix lepus

Post Reply