I have just been looking through the unanswered questions. There are a number of questions there that are incapable of a simple answer. There are also questions relating to previous questions, which is getting away from the simple question and answer format that I thought that this site was trying to keep.

One type of question that I particularly dislike is: "Is there a word for?", or "What is the word for?"

Often there is no simple word to answer the question.

I could find lots of examples among the unanswered questions. One reason why these questions are unanswered is because they were not formulated very well in the first place.

  • 2
    As of right now, we have 10 questions with no upvoted answers. That number often goes down to 0, and EL&U consistently maintains that number under 20 or so, which is amazing compared to the rest of the network. Furthermore, among those 10 questions, there are only 2 single-word-requests, so unless you consider 2 to be "lots", there really isn't an epidemic to deal with here.
    – waiwai933
    Sep 13, 2012 at 6:45
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    There's a Meta question about single-word requests.
    – Andrew Leach Mod
    Sep 13, 2012 at 7:21
  • Robin, I see comments but no question. I suppose the purpose of stating a question in a discussion-tagged meta post is to direct the discussion. Also to avoid getting closed as not constructive. Sep 13, 2012 at 7:45
  • @jwpat Single word requests have attracted a Meta question before. So it is clearly something that has been of interest. The question I ask is in two parts. The first part is commenting on questions that are virtually impossible to answer. The second part is about 'what is the word' type questions. I also mention questions that refer to earlier questions, such as: Canadian Spelling - Why?. This is quite a good example as it is not really a question but is commenting on being Canadian. Yet this question attracted quite a few upvotes. Sep 14, 2012 at 5:22
  • Robin, I meant that your post (to wit, the words “I have just been looking through ... very well in the first place.”) appears to be a set of comments, and does not clearly state any question, hence may be non-constructive. Re Canadian spelling: why?, yes, that question too may be non-constructive and an exact duplicate, but I don't see your post asking anything specific about it. Feel free to edit your post and add some pointed questions to it. Sep 14, 2012 at 7:21
  • @jwpat Someone has gone to the trouble of answering my question. If I was to change the question, it would then make the answer look inappropriate. I asked two questions along similar lines. I could ask a third after I have reformulated the question. I will have a look at the unanswered questions first! Sep 14, 2012 at 10:22
  • I could ask a question in Meta along the lines of "Why do contributors prefer to post comments rather than answers to questions?". I will see if I can find an example. Sep 14, 2012 at 10:24
  • (a) You can add questions to this post without invalidating J.R.'s answer. (b) Please do not post any questions filled with presuppositions as in your previous comment. Before asking why something is so, ask if it is so. Also, ask questions that can be answered without speculation. Sep 14, 2012 at 13:25

1 Answer 1


We have to be careful when concluding that there are no simple answers to a single-word request.

I'm remembering one question in particular, where an O.P. – I forget the name now – asked for something very specific. A smattering of comments were left, asking inquiries along the lines of, "What makes you think there's really a word for this?" He insisted there was, so I went hunting. The next day, I managed to find it: lethonomia.

It seemed like an unreasonable question for awhile, until I managed to unearth the right word.

That said, if a question isn't formulated well, that's a different problem altogether.

  • The point I was trying to make is that often learners of English seem to thing that there is a one word answer to difficult questions about concepts. Also a word like - lethonomia - is not really useful because it is very rarely used. Perhaps a much better word for a foreign speaker would be 'forgetfulness' or the expression 'it is on the tip of my tongue'. Sep 14, 2012 at 5:33
  • I would like to add that I voted for your answer even though it was not exactly what I was looking for. Sep 14, 2012 at 5:36
  • Maybe that's true about asking for a word when there isn't one, but I only meant to point out that I've seen "bad" questions become good ones after some very insightful answers were given. I can point to this question as one example, which seemed nonsensical to me, until @tchrist gave his excellent answer, and I realized I had been educated. (Just a week or so ago, I was listening to a radio interview when a Spanish official enunciated a beautiful epenthetic e in front of an English word that began with s; I smiled in appreciation).
    – J.R.
    Sep 14, 2012 at 8:43
  • I have be to Espana on holiday. People say Spanish is an easy language. But from what I have heard of the pronunciation, it sounds very foreign. Sep 14, 2012 at 10:13
  • Granted, lethonomia was a good "word" to find there. But is it really a word? It's not in OED or any of my dead tree dictionaries, and there are only a dozen instances in Google Books. In fact, that was one of the relatively small number of questions with a downvote from me, and I'm still not convinced your answer meaningfully "salvaged" it. Sep 14, 2012 at 14:40
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    @FumbleFingers: I don't know if it's a "real word"; I do know that lethonomia appears to be obscure. I don't want to open a debate about that word, I'm just using it as an example where a request seemed impossible to fill, but then, suddenly, it didn't. I see that happen on ELU now & then. Going back to the O.P.'s question (here on meta): a disliked question type is, "Is there a word for?", because "often there is no simple word to answer the question." Fine, but sometimes you can't know until you ask, and sometimes there is a word after all.
    – J.R.
    Sep 14, 2012 at 19:29
  • Well, I do agree your main point - I just thought it was unfortunate that you illustrated it with an example featuring an answer word that's at least "questionable". Just as it's also unfortunate that the "epenthetic e" one you linked in a comment has been closed. I don't know if my highest upvoted answer - "a word for a change so small that it doesn’t seem to be a change at all" supports your point better, but I'm sure there are good some SWR questions/answers, even if many aren't so good. Sep 16, 2012 at 20:54
  • @Fumble: Sure, there are other questions that might support my assertion; I went with those based on personal experience. I looked long and hard to find lethonomia – like the word or no, you must admit, it's a dead-on hit for what the O.P. asked for, when several seemed to chide that there was probably no such word. As for the closed question, that solidifies my point even more. I voted to close the question, but wanted to recant my close vote after tchrist's answer, which is my main point. What sometimes looks like a stupid question can turn into a good one if you just give others a chance.
    – J.R.
    Sep 16, 2012 at 21:21
  • J.R.: Indeed. It's not that I don't "like" lethonomia - if I put aside my misgivings about whether it's more properly a "neologism" rather than an established word, it's an excellent answer. As to the other question - like you, I find tchrist's answer interesting and informative, and I don't really understand why it was closed. It certainly seems to answer the question - and it's got plenty of upvotes, so obviously others agree. Sep 16, 2012 at 21:36
  • @FumbleFingers: that question had already garnered four close votes before tchrist answered. FWIW, that question also prompted me to weigh in on the SE Meta debate about not being able to recant or rescind close votes. The powers that be are amazingly stubborn on that one.
    – J.R.
    Sep 16, 2012 at 21:40
  • I don't visit/vote on SE meta often as I should, but I quite agree that's a good question and yours is a good answer. I've done exactly the same as you several times - sometimes you can redress the balance by voting to re-open later, but that's not really the point. I think that's the only issue where I've ever disagreed with anything Jeff Atwood says - and looking at the votes on all those answers (particularly the huge number of downvotes for Jeff's), our position is obviously shared by most users across many SE sites. Strange indeed that TPTB won't shift on that one. Sep 16, 2012 at 22:03

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