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J.S. writes to ask

I have long wondered whether there is a word for a concept without a word. I feel like I once found this word, but have since forgotten, and now I am struggling to find it again.  

For example, maybe I have the concept for a feeling. It is a feeling I can describe but does not have a corresponding word in English (schadenfreude, for example). Is there a word for these types of concepts?

Could the word J.S. is struggling to remember be TFW? Probably not, since that's just a way of introducing the description of a feeling without a name.

Anyhow, J.S. wants a more general term, not just for feelings that can be described but not named, but for any "concepts" with that property.

No appropriate word comes to mind, though perhaps someone in the comments will be able to think of one, or create one as a concatenation of Greek and Latin morphemes.

Since most concepts don't have names, and most people are frequently made to confront that fact, the possible lack of such a word would be surprising if we subscribed to the common view that the presence or absence of a "Word for X" reveals deep truths about a culture.

The rest of us can be grateful that our ancestors developed syntax and semantics — though this still leaves us in the state described by Jorge Luis Borges at the end of his essay "El Idioma Analítico de John Wilkins":

Esperanzas y utopías aparte, acaso lo más lúcido que sobre el lenguaje se ha escrito son estas palabras de Chesterton: "El hombre sabe que hay en el alma tintes más desconcertantes, más innumerables y más anónimos que los colores de una selva otoñal… cree, sin embargo, que esos tintes, en todas sus fusiones y conversiones, son representables con precisión por un mecanismo arbitrario de gruñidos y de chillidos. Cree que del interior de un bolsista salen realmente ruidos que significan todos los misterios de la memoria y todas las agonias del anhelo" (G. F. Watts, pág. 88, 1904).

Leaving hopes and utopias apart, probably the most lucid ever written about language are the following words by Chesterton: "He knows that there are in the soul tints more bewildering, more numberless, and more nameless than the colours of an autumn forest… Yet he seriously believes that these things can every one of them, in all their tones and semitones, in all their blends and unions, be accurately represented by an arbitrary system of grunts and squeals. He believes that an ordinary civilized stockbroker can really produce out of his own inside noises which denote all the mysteries of memory and all the agonies of desire" (G. F. Watts, page 88, 1904).




  1. Ari Corcoran said,

    December 28, 2016 @ 9:33 am

    While not as intellectually satisfying, perhaps, as a Greek or Latin concatenation, surely "whatchamacallit" is in the right direction?

  2. Christian Saunders said,

    December 28, 2016 @ 9:41 am

    The question is so meta…

  3. Victor Mair said,

    December 28, 2016 @ 9:52 am


    It's an integral part of the human condition.

    [(myl) Sorry, this is a completely different thing — J.S.'s problem is not that the concept is ineffable, but that there's no single word for it in English.

    The idea that if there's "No Word for X" then X can't be understood and communicated is deeply wrong.]

  4. Faoladh said,

    December 28, 2016 @ 10:33 am

    If there is such a word, it would be fitting if it were to be on the site that documents those feelings, The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows.

  5. Coby Lubliner said,

    December 28, 2016 @ 10:50 am

    Don't people use je ne sais quoi anymore?

    [(myl) Again, J.S. is not concerned with cases where a concept can't be understood and described, but rather cases where there's no single word for it.

    I may have confused matters by bringing in a quotation that evokes limitations on the descriptive powers of language — but that's really an entirely different thing, and the difference matters.]

  6. GH said,

    December 28, 2016 @ 11:21 am

    How about "sniglet", defined as "any word that doesn't appear in the dictionary, but should"?

    I suppose strictly speaking it refers to a word newly coined (usually facetiously) to refer to the concept, rather than to the concept itself, but it seems close.

  7. rcalmy said,

    December 28, 2016 @ 11:27 am

    "Nameless" seems to come fairly close to fitting the bill. While it also has uses meaning "indescribable" which are arguably more common, I have seen it used in the literal sense of just not having a name.

  8. Joyce Melton said,

    December 28, 2016 @ 11:43 am

    The problem with coming up with a name for the nameless concept is that name then refers to the concept of a nameless concept. "The Horse with No Name" becomes the name of the horse with no name. And it's good to get out of the rain.

  9. mkt said,

    December 28, 2016 @ 12:07 pm

    Unappealing, but dates to 2006:

  10. Jonathan said,

    December 28, 2016 @ 12:47 pm

    In Scots English, the word JS is seeking is 'thingwy'. I think though this is more commonly used for a concept, or thing, or person, that has a name that's gone out of the mind, rather than a name that was never there in the first place: but these are perhaps indistinguishable . Thus (anglicised) "What's that thingwy on the kitchen table? " Also used with faint contempt, to suggest for example one can't be bothered to recollect the true name for a person so insignificant- as in "I went round to Dave's last night for a few drinks but thingwy had drunk all the vodka before I got there".

    Is there not a discussion of this in Flann O'Brien's 'The Third Policeman"? I lent that to a friend, thingwy, now I'll never get it back so I can't check.

  11. Gregory Kusnick said,

    December 28, 2016 @ 1:26 pm

    Unless I'm misunderstanding, J.S. isn't looking for a word to use when the right word doesn't exist (e.g. thingwy, whatchamacallit). J.S. wants a word that names the class of all concepts for which the right word doesn't exist.

    We could call that class the unnameables.

  12. Victor Mair said,

    December 28, 2016 @ 1:45 pm

    @Gregory Kusnick

    The class of unnameables would vary from language, since J.S. specifically mentions "schadenfreude", which attests to the existence of a word / name for this feeling in German. On the other hand, we now have this word in English too, since we borrowed it from German.

  13. david said,

    December 28, 2016 @ 2:01 pm

    perhaps we're getting close to Russel's paradox which led to Gödel's incompleteness theorem

  14. Adam said,

    December 28, 2016 @ 2:59 pm

    It feels like "thing" serves this purpose fairly well in colloquial English.

  15. Mara K said,

    December 28, 2016 @ 4:12 pm

    I think "lacuna" is the technical term for a gap in a lexicon.

  16. Nathan Emmett said,

    December 28, 2016 @ 4:17 pm

    In Terry Pratchett's 'Men at Arms', Gaspode The Wonder Dog refers to words like 'whatchamacallit', 'thingwy', and 'wossname' as 'metasyntactic variables'. Is that a thing(wy)?

  17. Jason F Siegel said,

    December 28, 2016 @ 4:18 pm

    When I teach this to my lexicography students, we distinguish between semantic gaps and lexical gaps. A semantic gap is when the concept does not exist in a language, like sushi in English at the time of the American War of Independence, while a lexical gap is when the concept exists but the word does not, like the distinction between the spouse of a sibling and the sibling of a spouse.

  18. GH said,

    December 28, 2016 @ 4:34 pm

    I think Mara K's suggestion of "lacuna" fits nicely (obviously as a specialized meaning of a more general term).

    The question brings to mind a series of exchanges from Brief Lives by Neil Gaiman (art by Jill Thompson), with dour Dream talking to his daffy sister, Delirium:

    Delirium -"What's the name of the word for the precise moment when you realize that you've actually forgotten how it felt to make love to somebody you really liked a long time ago?"
    Dream – "There isn't one."
    Delirium – "Oh. I thought maybe there was."


    Delirium – "Is there a word for forgetting the name of someone when you want to introduce them to someone else at the same time you realize you've forgotten the name of the person you're introducing them to as well?"
    Dream – "No."

    Later still…

    Delirium – "Um, what's the name of the word for things not being the same always? You know, I'm sure there is one. Isn't there? There must be a word for it … the thing that lets you know time is happening. Is there a word?"
    Dream – "Change."

    (Transcripts from here.)

  19. Hannah said,

    December 28, 2016 @ 4:47 pm

    Lexical gap? Or is this somehow not quite the right concept?

  20. peterv said,

    December 28, 2016 @ 5:00 pm

    I am reminded of a statement by Felix Mendelssohn:

    "People often complain that music is too ambiguous, that what they should think when they hear it is so unclear, whereas everyone understands words. With me, it is exactly the opposite, and not only with regard to an entire speech but also with individual words. These, too, seem to me so ambiguous, so vague, so easily misunderstood in comparison to genuine music, which fills the soul with a thousand things better than words. The thoughts which are expressed to me by music that I love are not too indefinite to be put into words, but on the contrary, too definite."

    Letter to Marc-André Souchay, 15 October 1842. (Translation)

  21. Vulcan With a Mullet said,

    December 28, 2016 @ 5:43 pm

    I'm fine with "nameless concept"

  22. MattF said,

    December 28, 2016 @ 6:13 pm

    What we need is a hierarchy of inexpressibilty. Starting with merely indescribable, rising up through ineffable and ethereal– and ending with the calamity of inconsistency. Any resemblance to the sequence of Large Cardinal Axioms is purely coincidental.

  23. TR said,

    December 28, 2016 @ 7:15 pm

    As long as the word is nonexistent, it's also self-descriptive. It would be a pity to spoil that by inventing it.

  24. Ralph Hickok said,

    December 28, 2016 @ 8:29 pm

    If there's no English word for it, does that mean that there's no concept for which there is no English word?

  25. Steve Morrison said,

    December 28, 2016 @ 8:42 pm

    Nathan Emmett: Metasyntactic variables are a real thing in computer science.

  26. Eric TF Bat said,

    December 28, 2016 @ 8:51 pm

    How has nobody mentioned The Deeper Meaning Of Liff yet?

    Liff (n.)
    A common object or experience for which no word yet exists.

    There. Solved. Douglas Adams and John Lloyd to the rescue again!

    [(myl) And we have a winner!]

  27. JPL said,

    December 28, 2016 @ 8:52 pm

    That's an interesting question J.S. raises. I need an example of just what it is he's looking for: presumably a pre-existing concept that does not have lexical expression, i.e., where there is no lexeme that has that "concept" for its meaning. Meanwhile, of the above comments, Jason F. Siegel seems to be on the right track. We need to distinguish between cases where we have a novel object, such as sushi (or perhaps 'schadenfreude'), and no pre-existing category in the speaker's language into which it can be put, and where the typical response most languages have is borrowing the form from the language that has the lexeme ("semantic gap", meaning a gap in the categorical system); from cases where we have a single pre-existing concept (i.e., category), e.g., '[my] niece', and we feel a need to make a distinction in the world we're talking about, e.g., between the daughter of my wife's sister and the daughter of my sister. The idea of a "lexical gap" corresponds to the need for an ability to explicitly express the distinction: differentiation of a category, and then indexing the (newer) subcategory with a new expression, perhaps formed by modification of the previous expression. If we're talking about concepts (logically, categories), as opposed to "feelings", or objects generally, I take it we're dealing with the latter kind of case. (A priori, there can be no human language with a separate lexical item for each element of the manifold of experience. The logical form of a categorical structure, like the meaning of a lexeme, is "internal differentiation with unification".) I haven't answered the Q about a possible word for the phenomenon, since I'm not sure I've understood the question properly.

  28. Gregory Kusnick said,

    December 28, 2016 @ 9:06 pm

    Jason F Siegel said "A semantic gap is when the concept does not exist in a language, like sushi in English at the time of the American War of Independence".

    I take this to mean that there's no cultural referent for the concept. One presumes that George Washington and his contemporaries would have found the combination of raw fish and rice novel but not inconceivable.

    One can coherently say "There's no word for X", but one can't very well say "There's no concept for X", because to say it is to conceptualize X.

  29. JPL said,

    December 28, 2016 @ 9:32 pm

    Are we talking about cases like the recognized strategy of intellectually dishonest argument that somebody eventually called "gish-galloping" before the somebody called it that?

  30. philip said,

    December 28, 2016 @ 10:11 pm

    Liff (according to the wiki link) seems to be defined as "A book, the contents of which are totally belied by its cover. For instance, any book the dust jacket of which bears the words, 'This book will change your life'."

    So the concept of 'having a winner' is moot.

    What about: agverbal, or averbal (based on agnostic and atheist) or, my own choice, a Ludwig or a Wittgenstein (based on: 'Whereof on cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.').

  31. Faoladh said,

    December 28, 2016 @ 11:10 pm

    @philip: At the wikipedia article, read the first paragraph under "Versions". The definition as given in The Deeper Meaning of Liff (the source specified in the comment above) is the appropriate one.

  32. JPL said,

    December 29, 2016 @ 2:05 am

    E.g., 'l'esprit de l'escalier': What do you have before you have the category (meaning, senses, historical resonance, etc.) expressed by the expression (could be lexical) "l'esprit de l'escalier"? The signifier for a lexeme indexes a principle of unification for a category.

  33. JPL said,

    December 29, 2016 @ 2:22 am

    How about 'pre-categorical idea'? E.g., "We need a standard expression (a word) for the pre-categorical idea of "relating an amusing story to someone without remembering that it was they who told it to you in the first place"."

  34. raempftl said,

    December 29, 2016 @ 4:27 am

    In what way do the concepts of "gloating" and "schadenfreude" differ in English?

    I am a German native speaker and always assumed that gloating is the corresponding word for Schadenfreude

  35. Jeroen Mostert said,

    December 29, 2016 @ 4:34 am

    The interesting thing is that such a word implies a value judgement — there's no word for it, but you feel like there ought to be. As demonstrated in several comments, the vast majority of concepts don't have words (or simple phrases) associated with them, but it's perfectly feasible to describe them in complete sentences. This is not at all the same from claiming a particular concept can't be described in language at all (which is probably false, even if purists may complain a description can't perfectly capture a particular instance, which is probably true). This desire for a word reflects on the speaker more than it does the concept under consideration.

  36. Jeroen Mostert said,

    December 29, 2016 @ 4:50 am

    @raempftl: gloating is far more broad — I can also gloat when I've received a windfall that you're not going to be sharing in, even though you're no worse off than before. With gloating, the accent is on conspicuously delighting in how I'm better off — with schadenfreude, there's often no interaction at all. Schadenfreude is best enjoyed in silence or with friends, gloating is best enjoyed with an adversary.

    Of course, as with all things that have no exact mapping, it's not to say that some instances of Schadenfreude couldn't be accurately translated by just gloating (or a circumscription).

  37. Brian said,

    December 29, 2016 @ 7:45 am

    I like ineffable for something so great that the 'F' word doesn't do it justice.

  38. Cervantes said,

    December 29, 2016 @ 7:55 am

    In what way do the concepts of "gloating" and "schadenfreude" differ in English?

    "Schadenfreude" explains the spring in my step when I see you have suffered a misfortune. "Gloating" is what I do when I contemplate my own good fortune or victory, e. g., when I fondle the gold in my counting-house; or tot up the enemy dead on the battlefield; or gaze upon my good lady wife and appreciate her many charms.


    Richard Chenevix Trench, Archbishop of Dublin:

    Nor can I help noting, in the oversight and muster […] of the words which constitute a language, the manner in which its utmost resources have been taxed to express the infinite varieties, now of human suffering, now of human sin. Thus, what a fearful thing is it that any language should possess a word to express the pleasure which men feel at the calamities of others; for the existence of the word bears testimony to the existence of the thing. And yet such in more languages than one may be found.†

    Here's his footnote:

    In the Greek, ἐπιχαιρεκακία, in the German, ‘schadenfreude.’  Cicero so strongly feels the want of such a word, that he gives to ‘malevolentia’  the significance, ‘voluptas ex malo alterius,’  which lies not of necessity in it.

    (See "Lecture III: On the Morality in Words" in On the Study of Words, 1851.)

  39. Stephen Goranson said,

    December 29, 2016 @ 8:01 am

    Lapse legomenon?

  40. Victor Mair said,

    December 29, 2016 @ 9:26 am

    You can't say "agverbal" on the model of "agnostic" because the latter comes from "a + gnostic".

  41. Gregory Kusnick said,

    December 29, 2016 @ 11:05 am

    Agverbal is when a silver-tongued Senator filibusters the Farm Bill.

  42. Matt Juge said,

    December 29, 2016 @ 12:36 pm

    For agonias read agonías.

  43. Brooklyn Codger said,

    December 29, 2016 @ 4:17 pm

    Do you have any issues with us coining a word for a concept that doesn't already have a word associated with it? For example, my son and daughter-in-law got divorced, but my former daughter-in-law is still in my life because she is the mother of my grandchild. So…am I okay in calling her my "daughter-outlaw?"

  44. philip said,

    December 29, 2016 @ 8:00 pm

    Very good Gregory, tres role.

    But Victor, I can say whatever I want, surely, even if I am wrong about the etymology of agnostic? I usually find what you say effable.

  45. David P said,

    December 29, 2016 @ 9:22 pm

    I like "lexical gap."

    This all reminds me of a line in Jefferson Airplane's "Wild Tyme":

    "It's a wild time,
    I'm doing things that haven't got a name yet."

  46. Xmun said,

    December 29, 2016 @ 9:51 pm

    Off the point, perhaps, but it's intriguing to see the much-qualified "an ordinary civilized stockbroker" rendering the unqualified "un bolsista".

  47. V said,

    December 30, 2016 @ 2:08 am

    I will note that sushi as we know it today did not exist yet during the American war of independence.

  48. John Swindle said,

    December 30, 2016 @ 3:19 am

    Nor does sushi need to have raw fish, or any fish.

  49. Peter Taylor said,

    December 30, 2016 @ 4:09 am

    @Xmun, the obvious explanation turns out to be correct: Borges translated a quote from an English writer into Spanish; Watts translating Borges sought out the original English quote rather than back-translate. It's easily found in Google Books: On Lying in Bed and Other Essays, page 156.

  50. JPL said,

    December 30, 2016 @ 5:23 am

    The concept "concept without a word" is a concept without a word. Is the concept "concept without a word" a member of itself? (If we now have a term, e.g., 'pre-categorical idea', we now have a new, higher level category; then we can say, "the concept "concept without a word" is a pre-categorical idea, along with all the other pre-categorical ideas, or was, since now it is no longer a pre-categorical idea". We now have a word for the pre-categorical idea "concept without a word". Is there any pre-categorical idea that is a pre-categorical idea? Yes, all of them. (Is there any cat that is a cat?))

  51. JPL said,

    December 30, 2016 @ 5:37 am

    Borrowing is a common phenomenon in the history of languages. Before English borrowed the word 'sushi' it had expressions like, "that Japanese dish with the rice and raw fish". Now there are a lot of different food items that we call "sushi", and some similar items that we don't call "sushi".

  52. January First-of-May said,

    December 30, 2016 @ 5:48 am

    A recent Language Log discussion from October 2014 (it felt recent in my mind, so I was surprised at the date) proposed the word blonk for a similar concept (basically the verb version of this). We might as well use it as the noun too (though I do rather like "liff").

    Of course English already has a word spelled "blonk", which means, among perhaps other things, "one of the two most common objects in Conway's Game of Life" (in this sense it is a portmanteau of "block" and "blinker", the names of said two most common objects). But there are only so many simple monosyllabics, anyway.

  53. January First-of-May said,

    December 30, 2016 @ 5:56 am

    @David P – thanks, I didn't think of "lexical gap", that fits a lot better than trying to invent something made up for it!

  54. Cervantes said,

    December 30, 2016 @ 7:02 am


    Off the point, perhaps, but it's intriguing to see the much-qualified "an ordinary civilized stockbroker" rendering the unqualified "un bolsista".

    Other way around: Chesterton wrote the English original; Borges rendered it into Spanish, leaving out a few bits as he did.

    Peter Taylor:

    @Xmun, the obvious explanation turns out to be correct: Borges translated a quote from an English writer into Spanish; Watts translating Borges sought out the original English quote rather than back-translate. It's easily found in Google Books: On Lying in Bed and Other Essays, page 156.

    Watts wasn't the translator of that piece by Borges. Watts was a painter. He died when Borges was five. Chesterton was writing him an obituary of sorts, which Borges later discovered and utilized.

  55. D.O. said,

    December 31, 2016 @ 11:31 am

    What is a word? I mean, what if instead of borrowing schadenfreude English speakers kept saying "joy caused by the misfortune of others" or a variant phrase, would it count for a word?

  56. Graeme said,

    January 3, 2017 @ 4:38 am

    It's a 'rumsfeld'. The 'unknown known' which even he dared not name.

  57. ajay said,

    January 3, 2017 @ 11:21 am

    A semantic gap is when the concept does not exist in a language, like sushi in English at the time of the American War of Independence

    But, as pointed out above, the concept of sushi did not exist in any language in 1776. What would be an example of a modern semantic gap? Something like a Papuan language with no work for "iceberg"?

  58. Andreas Johansson said,

    January 3, 2017 @ 11:28 am

    ajay wrote:

    a Papuan language with no work for "iceberg"

    (my emphasis)
    I presume you meant "word", but indeed, it seems likely that a Papuan word for "iceberg" would find little employment.

  59. LP said,

    January 3, 2017 @ 4:44 pm

    Not exactly what J.S. is looking for, but it reminds me of the humorous "word fugitives" or "most wanted words" the Atlantic Monthly sometimes has (or used to have); for example, a word for a person who always feels compelled to rearrange the dishes in a dishwasher:

    The most recent column seems much more serious:

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