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Denotation vs. Connotation

unknown quantity

An unpredictable person or thing, as in We don't know how the new pitcher will do—he's an unknown quantity. This expression comes from algebra, where it signifies an unknown numerical value. Its figurative use dates from the mid-1800s.
The American Heritage® Idioms Dictionary
Copyright © 2002, 2001, 1995 by Houghton Mifflin Company. Published by Houghton Mifflin Company.
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Examples from the Web for unknown quantity
Contemporary Examples
Historical Examples
  • Yet in spite of this unknown quantity at the beginning, we begin afterwards to reckon with ourselves.

    Thoughts on Life and Religion Friedrich Max Mller
  • His blame was plentiful; his praise so rare as to be almost an unknown quantity.

    The First Violin Jessie Fothergill
  • The Somerville High nine is somewhat of an unknown quantity too.

  • But how, in this case, to find out what was the unknown quantity?

    Uncanny Tales Various
  • The voting strength of the world is about to be doubled, and the new element is absolutely an unknown quantity.

    What eight million women want Rheta Childe Dorr
  • For the amount of advertising that such a publisher is likely to do is an unknown quantity.

  • Unfortunately, however, the question involves more than one unknown quantity.

    Domesday Book and Beyond Frederic William Maitland
  • But she was now dealing with an unknown quantity, which she could not gauge.

    Dodo, Volumes 1 and 2 Edward Frederic Benson

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Word Value for unknown

14
18
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