Generally, exceptional is a compliment––"the concert was exceptional" means it was better than what could have been expected. But it can also just mean unusual. "Maria gets to skip gym, but hers is an exceptional case."

Exceptional begins with the Latin prefix ex- 'out,' because something exceptional stands out in some way. In certain cases, exceptional can mean under-performing. Children with special educational needs are sometimes referred to in this way, as exceptional or special.

Definitions of exceptional

adj surpassing what is common or usual or expected

exceptional kindness”
especial, particular, special
not common or ordinarily encountered; unusually great in amount or remarkable in character or kind

adj far beyond what is usual in magnitude or degree

“an exceptional memory”
exceeding, olympian, prodigious, surpassing
beyond what is ordinary or usual; highly unusual or exceptional or remarkable

adj deviating widely from a norm of physical or mental ability; used especially of children below normal in intelligence

“special educational provisions for exceptional children”
departing from the normal in e.g. intelligence and development

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