c. 1200, "given or granted in unusual circumstances, exceptional;" also "specific" as opposed to general or common; from Old French special, especial "special, particular, unusual" (12c., Modern French spécial) and directly from Latin specialis "individual, particular" (source also of Spanish especial, Italian speziale), from species "appearance, kind, sort" (see species).
Meaning "marked off from others by some distinguishing quality; dear, favored" is recorded from c. 1300. Also from c. 1300 is the sense of "selected for an important task; specially chosen." From mid-14c. as "extraordinary, distinguished, having a distinctive character," on the notion of "used for special occasions;" hence "excellent; precious."
From late 14c. as "individual, particular; characteristic." The meaning "limited as to function, operation, or purpose" is from 14c., but developed especially in the 19c. Special effects first attested 1951. Special interest in U.S. political sense is from 1910. Special pleading is recorded by 1680s, a term that had a sound legal meaning once but now is used generally and imprecisely. Special education in reference to those whose learning is impeded by some mental or physical handicap is from 1972.
Special pleading. (a) The allegation of special or new matter, as distinguished from a direct denial of matter previously alleged on the other side. ... (c) In popular use, the specious but unsound or unfair argumentation of one whose aim is victory rather than truth. [Century Dictionary]
"sweetheart, lover; special person or thing," c. 1300, from special (adj.) or from noun use of the adjective in Old French. Meaning "special train" is attested from 1866.
early 15c., "a special quality or thing;" mid-15c. as "quality of being special," from Old French specialte, especialte "nature, special quality, particularity; special point, distinction," and directly from Latin specialitatem (nominative specialitas) "peculiarity, particularity" from specialis "individual, particular" (see special (adj.)). French form spécialité (especially in reference to restaurant dishes) is recorded in English from 1839.
late 14c., from Old French especial "pre-eminent, important," from Latin specialis "belonging to a particular kind or species," from species "kind" (see species). Latin words with initial sp-, st-, sc- usually acquired an e- in Old French (see e-). Modern French has restored the word to spécial. In English, originally with the same sense as special (adj.), later restricted to feelings, qualities, etc.
also SWAT, 1968, acronym said to be for Special Weapons and Tactics squad or team; or Special Weapons Attack Team.