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noun [countable]

a start-up (= newly established company) whose value has reached more than one billion US dollars

'Manish Madhvani, managing partner at GP Bullhound, said: "The UK has raced ahead as the undisputed home of unicorns in Europe, with London producing the vast majority of Britain's billion-dollar tech companies …"'

The Independent 18th June 2015

Traditionally, unicorn has belonged to that unique group of words which provide a welcome respite for weary lexicographers because they have a clear and simple mapping between form and meaning – they refer to one thing, and one thing only. But the semantics of unicorn is on the turn, the mythical horned horse now looking like it may have to share dictionary space with a billion dollar internet start-up.

a unicorn (or unicorn company) has … become the accepted description for a newly started company, usually no more than ten years old

In the business world, a unicorn (or unicorn company) has in recent times become the accepted description for a newly started company, usually no more than ten years old, which has come to achieve a valuation of $1 billion (about £590 million) or more.

The vast majority of unicorns are consumer-oriented, web-based companies, theirentrepreneurial founders typically well-educated thirty-something males. Examples of unicorns familiar to many web users include online fashion company Asos, property website Zoopla, online takeaway delivery company JustEat, and music service Spotify.

Though unicorns are relatively few and far between, the UK, with its love of online shopping and high level of internet and smartphone use, seems to be particularly successful with them, producing seven of the 13 new unicorns in Europe during the past year. US social networking company Facebook, however, has come to be recognized as the granddaddy of the unicorns, now worth over $100 billion and correspondingly sometimes described as a super-unicorn. In San Francisco's so-called Silicon Valley, unicorns are becoming less of a rarity, some now being dubbed decacorns (ie: a blend of deca-, = 'ten', and unicorn) because they have valuations in excess of $10 billion. Recent examples of decacorns include lodging website Airbnb, photo sharing site Pinterest, and file hosting service Dropbox.

Background – unicorn

The new use of unicorn in reference to highly successful start-ups is the coinage of US venture capital investor Aileen Lee. The mythical creature was chosen as a metaphor because of it being something rare and a little bit magical – even just a few years ago, the concept of a fledgling business achieving this level of financial success would have been considered extremely unusual, if not impossible.

As a creature rather than a company, the mythical unicorn has been around a very long time, the word dating back to the Middle English period and based on Latin unicornis, comprised of uni = 'single' and cornu = 'horn'.

The financial sector is no stranger to animal metaphors. Among the many examples are bull and bear markets, characterized by upward and downward trends respectively, and deer market, where uncertainty and unwillingness to buy or sell is likened to a deer frozen by fear when caught in the headlights. Then there's the cash cow, a business venture generating profits which far exceed its start-up and running costs, a dead cat bounce, a small recovery in the price of declining stock, and if an investment turns out to be a bad one, it's simply called a dog. More recently, the economic turmoil relating to the 2008 credit crunch was described by financial analysts as a black swan.

by Kerry Maxwell, author of Brave New Words

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This article was first published on 4th August 2015.

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