The "One of the Only" Kerfuffle:
Last week I was widely quoted in the press referring to the Heller case involving the constitutionality of the DC Gun ban as:
one of the only cases in our lifetime when the Supreme Court is going to interpret an important provision of our Constitution unencumbered by precedent.
As soon as the quote appeared, I received a couple emails correcting my use of "one of the only." As one correspondent wrote:
You're quoted in the morning's [Washington Post], p. 1, above the fold: "This may be one of the only cases ...." Eeeek! What, pray tell, does "one of the only X" mean?! One hears it all the time, but parse it if you will, and see what you get.
A few minutes later, another wrote:
Let me introduce you to a useful word: few. As in,,,this may be one of the few cases in our lifetime.... In view of your substitution of "only," it bears mention that the oft-abused "unique" means one of a kind. Mitchell Strickler, Yale Law 1961
But then the emails stopped. So I was taken aback when the Sunday Boston Globe ran an entire column, entitled "Almost Unique," analyzing the correctness of my usage:
AS THE DISTRICT of Columbia's gun ban squared off against the Second Amendment last week, Georgetown University constitutional scholar Randy Barnett was widely quoted on the momentousness of the event: "This may be one of the only cases in our lifetime when the Supreme Court is going to be interpreting . . . an important provision of the Constitution unencumbered by precedent."

Objection! e-mailed reader Sue Bass of Belmont. "One of the only cases" doesn't make sense, she protested; it should logically be "one of the few."
After listing several authorities in support of the criticism, the column then turns to an interesting defense of the usage:
But one of the only has its defenders. James Kilpatrick, in "Fine Print," points out that it is no less logical than one of the best or one of the most talented. "The best advice I can offer is to shake your head and get on with what you are writing," he concludes.

Earlier usage gurus are silent on the topic, though there's some indirect evidence of their attitude. For instance, the critic Edmund Wilson, reviewing a1940s potboiler, observed that "one of the only attempts at a literary heightening of effect is the substitution for the simple 'said' of other, more pretentious verbs" like "shrilled" and "barked."

Usage maven Sir Ernest Gowers liked this quote enough - despite its use of "one of the only" - that he included it in his 1965 edition of Fowler's "Modern English Usage," as a comment on "said."

How long has this been going on? A Google Books search dates one of the only to the 1770s, when a traveler reported that "business, and making money, is one of the only employments" of Rotterdam. But only was already losing its singularity. The 1989 Oxford English Dictionary gave the sense "one (or, by extension, two or more), of which there exist no more . . . of the kind," and quoted Sir Philip Sidney, in the 16th century, using "the only two."

This expansive sense of "only" is not just an Anglo-Saxon aberration. In "Swann's Way," Proust's narrator says that a certain day was "one of the only" ("un des seuls") on which he was not unhappy. In German, according to University of Wisconsin professor Joseph Salmons, one of the only (eine der einzigen, etc.) is entirely OK.

Multilinguist Steve Dodson, at the blog Language Hat, said one of the only is common in Russian and in Spanish (un de los Ășnicos). Geoffrey Nunberg, a linguist at UC Berkeley, sent some examples in Italian (along with a caution from an Italian linguist who calls the usage illogical).

And as Bill Walsh argues at Blogslot, his editing blog, one of the only makes its own kind of sense. "Webster's New World defines only as 'alone of its or their kind,' and nobody objects to 'only two people.' . . . If 'only two people' have done something, wouldn't one of those people be one of only two people, or one of the only people, who have done it?"

Once we had the only two, in other words, we were on the slippery slope to one of the only. And in everyday, unedited English, we prefer it to one of the few by a Google hit ratio of 3 to 1. Nobody has to use it, but everyone speaking English can expect to hear it. After two and a half centuries, we should be getting used to it.
I must say that this kerfuffle brought to mind the exchange between Will Farrell and Dustin Hoffman in Stranger Than Fiction. When Farrell's character, IRS Agent Harold Crick, tells Hoffman's character, literature professor Jules Hilbert, that the voice he hears apparently narrating his life said disturbingly: "Little did he know that this seemingly innocuous act would result in his death," Hilbert suddenly becomes interested and responds: "Little did he know? I've written papers on "Little did he know." I've taught classes on "Little did he know."

Little did I know that "one of the only" would turn out to be so noteworthy. Who da Who'd a thunk it?

Update: I now notice that the BBC changed the quote for its audience to "our Constitution" from my reference to "the Constitution." Makes sense, but is still an interesting liberty taken with a direct quote.