Know your words: Unlicensed

Posted on Sun 14 Aug 2011 @ 12.01am UTC

OVER THE PAST SEVERAL DAYS, we have covered the words unlawful, illegal, illegitimate, illicit and immoral.

Today, we have a look at the word unlicensed.

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unlicensed (adj), unlicenced

Both spellings (from 1600-10) are correct — be consistent and use one or the other, not both.

The principal meaning of this adjective (from 1634) is:

  • having no official licence: an unlicensed restaurant


Unlicensed broadcasting is a term used for any type of
broadcasting without a broadcast licence.

Pirate radio is unlicensed broadcasting that is globally considered illegal. (2)

Can doctors delegate care to unlicensed assistants? (3)

Unlicensed activity is a serious threat to the health, safety, and
welfare [of] Florida residents and visitors. The department has made
vigorous enforcement of licensure regulation one of its highest priorities.

Colette (whose name I do not know how to spell, for I
was never in epistolary communication with that
hospitable outlaw) was simply an unlicensed publican, who
gave suppers after eleven at night, the Edinburgh hour of closing.
(Robert Louis Stevenson (1850-1894),
The Merry Men and Other Tales and Fables, 1882-87)

Now, he must be precious old, you know, and he has not a soul
about him, and he is reported to be immensely rich; and whether
he is a smuggler, or a receiver, or an unlicensed pawnbroker,
or a money-lender — all of which I have thought likely at
different times — it might pay you to knock up a sort of knowledge of him.
(Charles Dickens (1812-70), Bleak House, 1852-53)

It has several secondary meanings:

  1. done without permission: unauthorised (not endowed with authority)
  2. lacking official approval: unaccredited, unauthorised
  3. unrestrained, unbridled: lawless


Unlicensed activity occurs when a person performs or offers to
perform a job or service that requires licensure in one of the
professions regulated by the Division of Regulation, Division of
Real Estate and Division of Certified Public Accounting. Unlicensed activity
in these professions is a criminal offense and is referred to
the local State Attorney. (7) (Sense 1)

The boxer, who became undisputed world champion
that year, claims that he had talks with unlicensed promoters.
(8) (Sense 2)

The unlicensed loanshark [sense 3] came before the courts after being arrested
for i
mposing high annual percentage rates on customers. The court
heard the loanshark started dealing in unlicensed loans [senses 1, 2] in 2003,
then set up a company to carry on his illegal moneylending. (9)

Upon the smallest of small scales, she was an unlicensed
pawnbroker, keeping what was popularly called a Leaving Shop,
by lending insignificant sums on insignificant articles of property
deposited with her as security. (10) (Senses 1 and 2)
(Charles Dickens, Our Mutual Friend, 1865)


Something that is unlicensed isn’t necessarily unlawful or illegal or criminal. About 99% of the time, unlicensed simply means ‘not authorised because of having no licence.’

Many people seem to think, for instance, ‘unlicensed driving’ (and the associated ‘uninsured driving’) is the same as ‘dangerous driving.’ It isn’t. However, it is not impossible for an unlicensed or uninsured driver to be involved in dangerous driving, mainly because having no driving licence or no insurance could be taken as a sign of reckless behaviour. Truth is, nearly all dangerous driving is done by licensed drivers with full insurance.

In medical terminology, unlicensed can also mean ‘not approved for use by the appropriate regulating authority,’ and applies especially of a drug:

Fentanyl is classified as a narcotic and therefore unlicensed
for non-prescription use.

Whether something or someone that is unlicensed is unlawful, illegal or criminal depends largely on the law of the land in your place.


Here is a sentence using unlicensed in all of the above senses:

The unlicensed [A] restaurant carrying on the unlicensed [B] business
of a live-performance venue was the scene of unlicensed [C] behaviour
of its patrons, high on unlicensed [D] drugs and alcohol throughout
the night, that caused extensive criminal damage to the neighbourhood. (12)

where [A] having no licence, [B] done without official permission, [C] lawless and unbridled, and [D] unapproved for non-medical use.

And here’s an extreme example:

The unlicensed [a] with their unlicensed [b], unlicensed [c] unlicensed [d] activities. (13)

where [a] the lawless mob, [b] unrestrained, [c] unapproved, and [d] without an official licence.

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Crime and punishment, and the word criminal.

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© Learn English or Starve, 2011.

Images: Fox Mulder’s driving licence via Advantidge ♦ Licence for unlicensed conduct by the author.

Posted in: Colour Section