Recently, this forum has seen many questions of the what is the single word for type.

Is this really such a concern in English?

Single words such as obfuscate or elucidate can obfuscate as much they can elucidate.

This quest for a single word might be considered stylistically important in some languages but how important is it in English?

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The value of single word requests have been discussed on meta for a while. –  KitFox Jan 14 '13 at 19:31
    
I did think of meta but the question wasn't really whether they are appropriate for the forum, it was more a general question about style. I'll read what's written here and see if I'm simply retreading old ground. –  Simon Hoare Jan 14 '13 at 19:49
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It certainly isn't an important concept. It's just one more shibboleth from the usual catechism -- English is a big bag of words, and if you use the right word(s), everyone will live happily ever after. Riiight. –  John Lawler Jan 15 '13 at 22:47
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Can we migrate this to english.stackexchange.com and address the question about English, rather than about the site? –  Jon Hanna Jan 16 '13 at 0:49
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@JonHanna, at this point it would have to be a new question posted to the main site: most of the answers here address the English-language question only superficially, if at all. (Mine included.) And it would have to be a tour-de-force of question composition to make it absolutely clear that it is not a meta-question. –  Marthaª Jan 18 '13 at 15:44
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migrated from english.stackexchange.com Jan 14 '13 at 19:25

This question came from our site for linguists, etymologists, and serious English language enthusiasts.

16 Answers

I know that tag is called single-word-requests, but I think it's a mistake to get hung up on that word. What these types of questions are really asking for is a concise way to express a concept, and a single word —being as concise as you can get— is the ultimate goal; but you can't always reach that goal, and that's OK.

That said, some s-w-r questions do explicitly want a single-word answer, sometimes because of space considerations in a user interface or some similar programming need, but also sometimes because the OP wants to construct a sentence a particular way (perhaps because of parallelism or poetic considerations) which requires a single word. This doesn't mean that English speakers/writers are particularly hung up on single words; it just means that these situations are, in a sense, harder than situations where a whole descriptive phrase can be used. In other words, if a writer can take as many words as he needs to describe a concept, he'll do so, and we here on ELU will never hear about it.

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Single word requests are enjoyable, like a puzzle. They allow one (me ;o) to showcase verbal fluency and vocabulary. I enjoy reading the answers given by others too. Yet I don't want EL&U to become an on-call, crowd sourced thesaurus. I worry that it will become tedious and repetitive if there are too many of these questions, all bunched together chronologically. I have no idea how to prevent that from happening though. Also, there is nothing about English that requires single word expression more than other languages, is there? (Sorry for writing this so poorly, battery dying.... –  Feral Oink Jan 15 '13 at 8:29
    
This reminds me a lot of "code golf" questions on Stack Overflow (now spun off onto a separate site). The folks who enjoyed them kept them (mostly) from becoming a problem by establishing a set of guidelines for how they should be asked (and, IIRC, how often) and helping to ensure they were implemented. –  Shog9 Jan 17 '13 at 3:16
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@Shog9: perhaps some SWR questions are akin to code golf, but certainly not all. When I've asked such a question, it has been because I encountered a real lack in vocabulary, a lack which couldn't be filled by describing the concept in a paragraph. (For example, küszöbgörcs: any long-winded explanation just adds to the phenomenon.) Whereas my understanding of code golf is that the problem is easily solved with a normal-length program: the challenge is artificially added. –  Marthaª Jan 17 '13 at 20:15
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  1. This is not recent: it has been going on since the beginning, or as long as I remember.

  2. Single words no more necessary in English than in most other languages. Although needless wordiness is undesirable, needless compression can be equally bad; and excessive compression at one point usually leads to destruction or inflation at some other point.

  3. These questions are generally not encouraged: experienced writers don't need or want single words except in the specific context of a longer text, at least not that often.

  4. Part of this desire comes from inexperience, but another part may be typical of programmers, who abound on Stack Exchange. They are often dealing with constraints of space and length. And they are also used to operate upon single entities, such as variables and values. Computer code is discrete rather than gradual, in that it resembles a set of building blocks rather than a lump of soft clay or a growing plant, if you will allow me my little metaphor. A single word is easy to handle as a block. However, in natural or literary language, a single idea normally does not fit into a single word very well, nor should it have to.

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Indeed. My concern is that people are wasting time chasing something they don't actually need under the misapprehension that it's better and/or clearer. –  Simon Hoare Jan 14 '13 at 19:57
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@SimonHoare: Human nature, o cruel! cease thy ceaseless chase and rest awhile under the clause tree. –  Cerberus Jan 14 '13 at 20:04
    
Ah, the good old clause tree. Full of worthy and noble clauses. –  Simon Hoare Jan 14 '13 at 20:15
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"3. These questions are generally not encouraged": I beg to differ. I'm not alone in enjoying these types of questions: they present a nice little puzzle, and get people to exercise parts of their vocabulary they didn't know they had. –  Marthaª Jan 14 '13 at 22:16
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The programmer thing doesn’t make sense. Programmers have always been able to have multiple words in their variable names, like best_guess_ever or first_past_the_post. –  tchrist Jan 14 '13 at 22:31
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@Martha: Okay, some people do like those questions. But in chat and on Meta, people are mostly negative about SWRs, although we all agree that a few SWRs are in fact enjoyable. –  Cerberus Jan 15 '13 at 0:11
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@tchrist: Sure, but just look at the underscores: everything is geared towards singularity. A single word is the ideal. –  Cerberus Jan 15 '13 at 0:13
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As a programmer, I do agree with 4., but from experience, I will happily admit that the quest for singularity is a futile one rather often, even in programming. –  Hanno Fietz Jan 15 '13 at 10:16
    
being a developer, I'd just like to point out that single word variable names are normal, however single word function and method names are not - what is the ideal is to have a desriptive label that accuarately explains what that method or function is for, the number of words in its name is secondary to that. There aren't many 'what should I call this function' questions on SO :) –  jammypeach Jan 15 '13 at 11:41
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It can be interesting:

Q. What is the single word that best means "smelling of a horse's urine"?

A. Jumentous, adj. smelling of a horse's urine.

Comment: Why thank you kind sir, that is indeed an interesting word. Now what a shame I'll almost never have a need to use it except perhaps in word games.

In terms of good English, no, not particularly useful, rarely necessary, just about never going to lead to as great a turn of phrase as expressing the same idea with several words.

And which is better:

It's jumentous.

Or:

That is horse piss and rotted straw, he thought. It is a good odour to breathe. It will calm my heart. My heart is quite calm now. I will go back. (James Joyce, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man)

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This answer is wicked jumentous! –  J.R. Jan 16 '13 at 1:21
    
...more to the point, almost nobody knows this word. So it might be fun in a written work, but is completely useless in conversation. A very good point there against slavishly sticking to one-word answers. –  T.E.D. Jan 17 '13 at 19:15
    
If this is the sort of thing you think SWR questions are about, you haven't been reading actual SWR questions. –  Marthaª Jan 18 '13 at 15:36
    
@Marthaª do you seriously mean to say that english.stackexchange.com/questions/tagged/single-word-requests doesn't contain a great many cases where - if there is a fully matching answer at all - they wouldn't be better expressed with an expression formed from several better-known words? I'm exaggerating by comparing a particularly obscure word with prose from one of the greatest writers the language has ever known, but the point applies to very many of them. –  Jon Hanna Jan 18 '13 at 15:46
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Given the astonishing number of English words, there often is an astonishingly apt single word choice. I think asking about the single word silver bullet may be a way of saying: Surprise and delight me again, English: can it be done, is there one word that covers this? English is normally so fit for this, that when a word is missing, it just grabs it. Ergo, Schadenfreude.

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Umm, no, I don't think French, Italian or even German (I am not as familiar with it though) have any paucity of perfectly chosen words for a given situation. I would quote the relevant lines from "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" if laptop battery weren't exhausted. Those lines are as applicable to other languages as they are to English. Also, I don't catch your intent in using schadenfreude, if you might clarify a little further, though it isn't a big deal. –  Feral Oink Jan 15 '13 at 8:37
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This is a nicely written article on how it's impossible to say whether a language has more words than another: economist.com/blogs/johnson/2010/06/counting_words The facts about Turkish were new to me. –  Hanno Fietz Jan 15 '13 at 10:06
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@FeralOink The point about schadenfreude is that English didn't have a word for that. Now it does. –  Andrew Leach Jan 15 '13 at 14:27
    
@HannoFietz I think you, and The Economist, are saying that English is no more or less expressive, when using single words or phrases than any other language, is that correct? Seems reasonable to me. –  Feral Oink Jan 15 '13 at 15:01
    
@AndrewLeach Thank you for clarifying! That makes sense. –  Feral Oink Jan 15 '13 at 15:02
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Thanks for commenting all three! @Feral: I did not mean to get into the business of comparing word trove volume with other languages. Absolutely agreed that other languages have their own well-developed and apt vocabularies. Although I would say that this game of "is there a single word" is a at, minimum, a very English game--although other languages might play it and it might be a characteristic game for them too. (German doesn't do it so much). –  DWright Jan 15 '13 at 15:04
    
@Hanno. Thanks for that article. It actually raises some interesting ponderings. I'm bilingual with German, and because of German's compound friendliness, there seems to be less obsessing of the one word that covers the situation. German can always make that work by compositing a word. –  DWright Jan 15 '13 at 15:06
    
@AndrewLeach. Thank you. I actually also meant to point out via that comparison, that the "one word game" functions differently in English and German. Schadenfreude in German is no big deal--arrived at through compounding like many other words. English speakers, in their quest and game for "the one right word" when they came across Schadenfreude took the word as a one right word instance. Even though it's a different sort of thing, also interesting, but different, in German. –  DWright Jan 15 '13 at 15:25
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@DWright It depends on the language itself. Eskimos (if I'm not mistaken) and people living in the "North" have several words for snow. Not the same snow, but for different types of snow. And the same applies to other languages/cultures: each one of them has words for things that feature where they are spoken. Not to mention that if it's true that you can't say a language can express itself better than another one, it makes little sense to say "that it's a very English game". –  Alenanno Jan 17 '13 at 9:36
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The difference between the right word and the almost-right word is the difference between the lightning and the lightning-bug. — Mark Twain

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I must admit, I slipped into a confused slumber when I came to that word obfus... ob... Whatever-- I think I get the drift. Conciseness is not an improper goal, but it can be overdone. I think it's helpful to remember that getting one's meaning across is more important than communicating an approximation in fewer words, at least most of the time. As Mark Twain wrote, "The difference between the right word and the almost-right word is the difference between the lightning and the lightning-bug", and there are of course many ideas that cannot be communicated with a single word.

Words are building blocks for communicating the important, complex ideas. If they weren't, and the language were yet complete, we would all have empty heads indeed, and not much reason to live; one person could do and think it all.

That's not to say that developing a proper word sense isn't important, or that word choice is not important, though. I look upon single-word questions with charity, and try to remember that anyone who cares so much about words can't be all bad, and that one can only know the limits of brevity as a useful tool by hitting them once in a while.

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Sometimes it can be frustrating when somebody asks for a single word, and there doesn't seem to be one. However, how can that person know that such a word doesn't exist, when there might be a perfect word hidden somewhere in the dictionary?

In other words, I don't mind when someone asks the question – although I do find it irksome when an O.P. or other passersby start criticizing suggested answers with, "But that's not one word."

I think the questions are generally fair questions, but the O.P.'s should always be ready to accept the fact that a perfect-fit word may not exist, in which case they'll probably get a lot of "close but no cigar" suggestions. The more difficult the original question, the more near misses will probably be offered. Such answers should be received graciously rather than criticized or downvoted; some people probably spent a fair amount of time racking their brains and are simply sharing the best they could come up with.

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I don't know if it's so much about importance for English as importance for writing/literature. The right word to express a concept is about more than compactness.

I argue it's about both processing abstract ideas, and emotional content.

The latter case is simple--Perseverance, say, has a powerful immediacy and emotional persuasiveness that isn't conveyed by the denotationally-equivalent "tendency to move forward in spite of obstacles."

The former case is more complicated: the human brain can only hold so many things in short term memory. This is why phone numbers are broken into pieces. Long sentences with many ideas are hard to understand because there's much to piece together. A single word that does the same job as a handful eliminates this problem, because the brain can instantly recognize a complex concept with a single symbol.

Think about multiplication--technically, it's just adding one number to itself a number of times equal to the other number. That's already a much harder way to think about it than the shorthand, "multiplying." Writing out "2 + 2 + 2 + 2 + 2 + 2 + 2 + 2 + 2 + 2" is also much harder to understand and solve than "2 x 10."

Counterpoints: Op's line about "Obfuscate" and "Elucidate;" the idea that "fancy words" are hard to understand.

I'd like to point out that if conciseness is your goal, "Obfuscate" or "Elucidate" are probably not the words you'd choose. Absolutely choose a shorter word over a longer one if it means the same thing, unless you have a poetic reason not to. "Clarify" or "Inform" would do the job of Elucidate in all but the case that you need to highlight the root of "Elucidate" referring to light--ie, poetry again. "Obfuscate" can be covered by "obscure," "hide," "enshroud," "darken," "conceal"... the list goes on.

In the case you do have a longer word with no shorter equivalent, do we really want to dumb down our writing so that no one has to look at a dictionary or plunk a few keys in Google search? I'd rather expand minds when it's that easy.

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Is this really such a concern in English?

This quest for a single word might be considered stylistically important in some languages but how important is it in English?

Why is English different from other languages? The difference is not the language but why you need a single word for a certain concept.

Getting a single word is often good in terms of Linguistic Economy (usually languages seek that), and if there's a case where you need one word (for a title, a website, etc) then yes, it's important. There must be other reasons certainly, I must have forgotten something.

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Well, why would you need a single word for a title or a website? I see two words in Stack Exchange! –  Cerberus Jan 15 '13 at 0:14
    
@Cerberus It depends on the title, of course. As there are long titles there are also short ones! :D –  Alenanno Jan 15 '13 at 0:15
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I'm a native speaker of German and consider myself quite fluent in English, so I'll dare a comparison of the two. In German, we have easy ways of forming nouns to describe some concept, but it gets quite bulky quickly, when that doesn't work. English to me seems to make it easier making a descriptive approximation of a new concept without getting too unwieldy. If this is true, finding the exact word could be deemed more important in German than in English. –  Hanno Fietz Jan 15 '13 at 9:55
    
@HannoFietz That's just a perspective of the issue though. You can't narrow a whole language to that. What I meant is that in every language, sooner or later, you might face the same problem and the comparison shouldn't be there. –  Alenanno Jan 15 '13 at 10:05
    
@Alenanno Yes, that's probably true. –  Hanno Fietz Jan 15 '13 at 10:08
    
@HannoFietz But you're right: Languages have different needs, so English might need that less/more than other languages, but this doesn't really affect these questions. I mean, we shouldn't really act on them unless they become a serious problem, but that's just my opinion right now. :) By the way, gotta love the German compound words. :D –  Alenanno Jan 15 '13 at 10:19
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FWIW, I happen to have more rep on than on any other tag, and am sitting at about 21'st on its all time users list. So I have a bit of experience with this particular type of question.

It seems to me that a very large percentage of the questions on are from people who want to translate a very nuanced word from another language into English, and for some reason believe English ought to have an exactly equivalent word. For anybody who knows linguistics, this is clearly hookum.

However, its a fun challenge for those of us who like to stretch our vocabulary muscles. So we all play along and try to win the "game". This has the unfortunate side-effect that more correct multi-word answers get bypassed in favor of less correct single-word answers.

So if I had a complaint about our current handling of single-word requests, it would be that we allow answers to be multi-word if need be. Brevity ought to count for something, but try to moderate for meaning, rather that just unblinkingly rejecting multi-word answers.

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This quest for a single word might be considered stylistically important in some languages but how important is it in English?

Particular contexts or milieus call for particular levels of style; for example, use of the right word or words seems more important in formal speech or writing than informal. For formal speech or writing that will be widely published and widely discussed, intensive searches for the right words and right phrases are worthwhile.

The language chosen for discourse is much less of a style-determining factor than is the context of discourse.

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The right word, yes; but a single word? –  Cerberus Jan 14 '13 at 19:56
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Yes. Concision is not the same as formality. The French equivalents for yours sincerely are anything but concise: Je vous prie, Madame la Comtesse, d'accepter l'expression de mes supplications les plus serviles et obsèques. This sort of thing. –  Simon Hoare Jan 14 '13 at 20:11
    
Yes, to everything in this answer, with one exception, the section about formal writing or speech. Sometimes a single word is the mot juste, sometimes it is a particular phrase is that is "just right". The greater concern in formal language is when one chooses the wrong word or phrase, I think! It is less relevant for it to be a single word versus a phrase or expression. –  Feral Oink Jan 15 '13 at 8:20
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From the non-native speaker's perspective, English is the language where so many things can be expressed by single word. So I feel uncomfortable when I can't find single word for something that can be described by single word in my native language. I feel I'm missing something. And I think I'm not the only one who feels like that.

Anyway, the ability to express something by single word instead of repeating ten-word description ten times makes you more expressive. This is also the economy of the language.

And yes, single word is much more appropriate for column name in database than five words. It is not only the beautification, there's 30-character name limit in some databases, and files in DOS had some day 8-character limit.

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I have asked questions like this before, and for me the motivation is to achieve a level of precision, not necessarily conciseness. To me, the question "is there a word for..." is really an open query on established terminology for specific concepts. If there isn't any, then of course the English language is quite easily able to convey even the most complex ideas effectively. That can be achieved by layering concepts on each other until the overall ideas are communicated, but if there is already a word or phrase that communicates the idea, why would I want to go to the trouble to express it in another way unless I had a specific reason to do so?

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And I think it's important, yes.

Whole books have been written with new words to accommodate for the fact that some concepts have no single word in English.

One such books writes in its foreword:

In Life, there are many hundreds of common experiences, feelings, situations and even objects which we all know and recognize, but for which no words exist.
On the other hand, the world is littered with thousands of spare words which spend their time doing nothing but loafing about on signposts pointing at places.
Our job, as we see it, is to get these words down off the signposts and into the mouths of babes and sucklings and so on, where they can start earning their keep in everyday conversation and make a more positive contribution to society.

'Nuff said.

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Which book was that? Reference? –  Mitch Feb 4 '13 at 15:19
    
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From what I have observed, single-word-requests are not always requests for exactly a single word because most descriptions – I'm not saying all, cannot be expressed in a single word without compromising on nuances of meaning. So I would rather consider them as alternative expressions, albeit short ones.

From that point of view, that is, making requests for alternative expressions if not always single-word-alternatives, needs to be encouraged. A non-native speaker like me would feel grateful if he could find people to help him with little phrases for ideas and concepts or anything he has on mind, like here.

So, we could consider retagging single-word-requests as alternative expressions – or something better, but disallowing such requests, I feel, would mean discouraging a part of the academic curiosity which plays an important role in learning and sharing.

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The hunt for le mot juste is interesting if not entertaining, but the goal of linguistic economy stems from Classics, which is why using a word like +obfusomething (nod to @lucounu) is not part the regression to the mean vocabulary. Yes, a concise word for any given concept maybe be favorable and helpful, but we don't want to end up epigrammatic, either.

I understand your question as asking if this a result of having discarded so many words over time, or is it of greater concern to non-native English speakers because it is daunting to realize you are translating ideas and not words? It seems many posts seeking the magic one word are really more concerned with translation of a concept in one word vs. simply as concisely as possible finding an acceptable translation of an idea.

@SimonHoare, excellent point about register vs. conciseness. Veuillez agréer, Monsieur Hoare, de mes sentiments les plus sincères is high register but many words.

At the same time, an infamous German word like Donaudampfschiffahrtsgesellschaftskapitänskajütenfenster refers to the view of the Danube out of the window of the ship captain's cabin for a particular shipping company in Germany. @DWright, absolutely there are wonderful borrows from other languages like Schadenfreude, which was finally added to the OED (O Freunde! Nicht diese töner!) Déjà vu is a classic example.

Though we seek the magical one-word bullet to describe the je ne sais quoi, cases like this do not mandate one and only one word. Take the example of the German ship captain's cabin window. Is this concept ever going to come across as one word in English?

To answer your question, to determine if a concise adjectival or adverbial phrase is preferable to an *obstetrifrugal word that a reader would have to look up, that preference would be based on style, i.e. APA.

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