Unicorns are real (but not what you think)
There has been a spate of unicorn sightings around the offices of Oxford Dictionaries recently. Don’t worry – we haven’t been overdoing it on the glitter and stardust. These unicorns come from the altogether more serious realm of finance.
What is a 21st-century unicorn?
In the world of big business, a unicorn is a start-up company valued at more than a billion dollars, and this new sense has now become so well established that it has just been added to OxfordDictionaries.com. The new businesses earning the unicorn label are generally in the technology and software sectors, and include ventures such as Snapchat, Dropbox, and Uber. Of the scores of companies founded each year, only a tiny number ever achieve a $1 billion valuation. In fact, so rare is this occurrence, that it is considered akin to finding a unicorn – hence the name.
Unicorns, of course, have existed for a lot longer than technology start-ups. The new financial sense was only coined recently, popularized by Aileen Lee in her 2013 article ‘Welcome to the Unicorn Club: Learning from Billion Dollar Startups’. The word unicorn, describing a fabulous horse-like animal with a single horn projecting from its forehead, dates from the Middle Ages, with the Oxford English Dictionary’s current first citation from the Ancrene Riwle, or Guide for Anchoresses, written in the early 13th century. In this text it is used as a symbol for anger or wrath, but the unicorn was more commonly figured in a positive light, as a potent religious symbol of strength and purity, often associated with Jesus. The Bible itself features a horned animal called the reem, which has frequently been translated – in the King James Bible, and elsewhere – as ‘unicorn’, though now widely considered to be a kind of wild ox.
When is a unicorn not a unicorn?
Such confusions of identity have been common throughout history. To the ancient Greeks, unicorns were real creatures which lived in India. Since then, they have been mistaken for various horned animals, particularly the rhinoceros, which Marco Polo was almost certainly describing when he stated that unicorns were ‘nearly as big’ as elephants, with ‘hair like that of a buffalo, feet like those of an elephant, and a horn in the middle of the forehead, which is black and very thick’. The narwhal – a small arctic whale, the males of which have a long, spirally twisted tusk – has the alternate name of sea unicorn, and its tusks have frequently been passed off as unicorn horns. Notably, narwhal has been suggested as the Canadian alternative to unicorn, used to describe their home-grown billion-dollar tech start-ups.
Though the financial sense was coined because of the supposed rarity of unicorns, there are now so many start-ups valued in excess of $1 billion that new terms are emerging to differentiate the truly remarkable among them. Enter the decacorn, a start-up valued at $10 billion or more, and the – currently largely mythical – hectocorn, a company tipping the $100 billion mark. The words super-unicorn and babycorn have also been coined, though nobody appears to have quite agreed on their definition yet. None of these words are yet common enough to be recorded in our dictionaries, but we are keeping a watch on them.
However, almost as soon as the financial unicorn was born, it seemed as if the species was under threat. The very proliferation of unicorns that has emerged in the past couple of years has led to dire warnings of dead unicorns ahead. Once again, this has spawned its own linguistic creation: the unicorpse – a former unicorn which is now failing, and worth less than its initial $1 billion valuation. Let’s hope that the future is not filled with unicorn graveyards…