Unicorn

Unicorns: they do matter

Do you dismiss unicorns as outdated relics of childhood and fantasy?  You may be making a mistake. The Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary now defines unicorn as “a new company valued at more than a billion dollars, typically in the software or technology sector”. Unicorns rarely go public, and their true value is frequently debated by financial experts. According to Investopedia.com, unicorn was first used in this newer sense in 2013 by venture capitalist Aileen Lee, because finding a software start-up company valued at $1 billion was as rare as finding a unicorn (= an animal like a white horse with a long straight horn on its head).

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Historically, people believed that unicorns had magical qualities, in addition to their extreme rarity, and it is easy to see the appeal of applying the descriptor unicorn to such a company.  After all, few non-experts truly understand the inner workings of software or technology firms, particularly firms which are not listed on the stock market.  Remaining as a private company lends an air of mystery to the business.  This might be particularly true when you consider the fantastical sums of money involved. It isn’t too much of a stretch to regard a start-up company worth $1 billion as having near-magical qualities.

Of course, using legendary creatures as metaphors is nothing new, especially when referring to the world of business, technology, and finance.  Both wizard and giant can be used to describe a person or company who is particularly successful. The recent biopic about Ponzi scheme founder Bernard Madoff is even titled The Wizard of Lies.

wizard

wizard definition

giant

giant definition

On a more positive note, a white knight is “a person or an organization that rescues a company from being bought by another company at too low a price”.  This is related to the newest sense of the word angel:

angel definition

Although a modern unicorn is unlikely to need help from a white knight or an angel investor, these words do highlight our fascination with leading fairy-tale financial lives, a preoccupation which is evident in several idioms, as well.  A Cinderella story is a rags-to-riches tale, in which an individual or a company suddenly rises from poverty to wealth and success.  Who hasn’t been warned not to kill the goose that lays the golden eggs, or searched for that ever-elusive pot of gold?

Why do we use such magical, mystical, and mystifying language to describe finance and business?  Maybe we long for dreamy days when life was slightly more quixotic.  Or maybe we simply don’t understand how these unicorns, wizards, and giants actually work, so we use metaphors to disguise our confusion.

Modern unicorns, as with most things modern, are a bit flashier and a bit more software-based than their fabled ancestors.  Though the current meaning of the word may have changed, one thing remains the same: a unicorn is still a rare and mysterious entity.


Lindsey Bowden is Dictionaries Assistant in OUP’s Dictionaries and Reference Grammar department. She is legendary – like a unicorn.

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