Printable Version
Pronunciation: in-ef-ê-bêl Hear it!

Part of Speech: Adjective

Meaning: 1. Indescribable, that cannot be expressed in words. 2. Unspeakable, unutterable, forbidden to be spoken, as the ineffable name of God.

Notes: Today's word is the negation of effable "utterable, pronounceable", which has slumped into disuse. The reason seems clear: all the words and sounds we utter are utterable, hence effable, so when would we need the word? It is the unutterable words like floccinaucinihilipilification for which we need a descriptive term. Since we avoid such terms, we seldom need words like ineffable. That is why its meaning has changed to either "indescribable" or "forbidden to be spoken".

In Play: This word is more often used to describe the indescribable, rather than the unspeakable: "Frieda Livery has an ineffable je-ne-sais-quoi about her that attracts men like moths to a candle." It can, however, still be used in that sense: "Since he accidentally scored the winning goal for the opposition, his name has become ineffable; they just refer to him as 'H' down in the athletic department."

Word History: Today's Good Word comes via Old French from Latin ineffabilis "unutterable", an adjective based on the prefix in- "not" + ex "out (from)" + fari "to speak". The past participle of fari is fatum, whose meaning migrated from "spoken" to "prophecy" to "fate, doom" as it became Old French fat and Old Portuguese fado 'fate, destiny", still in use today referring to the authentic Portuguese genre of music. English along the way borrowed it as fate. Fari also lies at the bottom of fabula "story (something spoken)", which the French compacted into fable before lending it to English. The present participle, fan(t)s "speaking", turns up in infan(t)s "not speaking", which English also borrowed from French, this time as infant. (Well, our gratitude to Katy Brezger for suggesting today's Good Word is not ineffable: thank you, Katy.)

Dr. Goodword,

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