Oh… what's the word?

Ever come across a situation where you’re searching for a word to describe something and the word simply doesn’t exist? Yes? Then you, my friend, have encountered what’s called a lexical gap.

Lexical gaps occur when a word is absent from a language. This can happen in translations between languages. For example, Romanian lacks the word “shallow”. So when something like “shallow waters” appears in imported media, it’s often translated through a series of words:  “ape puţin adânci” (“not so deep waters”) or “apă mică” (“small water”).


There are some lexical gaps that exist where we have a word for one situation but not a corresponding one. For example, we call a child who has lost his/her parents an orphan. However, no corresponding term exists for parents who lose a child. Reason dictates there should be a word for that, but it simply doesn’t exist in our language.


Lexical gaps can also develop as times change and often language adapts. I first heard about lexical gaps through an episode of This American Life on the topic of “Frenemies“. Surrounded by stories about the phenomenon of frenemies; host Ira Glass took a few minutes to examine the word itself. Where did the gap come from? Who filled it? The first recorded use of the term was by gossip columnist Walter Winchell said in one of his columns in 1953, “Hows about calling the Russians our frenemies?”But the word didn’t catch on. It surfaces several times through the decades, with each writer thinking they have coined the term. But it’s not until the 1990′s that the word’s popularity explodes and now it’s in the dictionary.

Putting two words together (portmanteaus) to fill a lexical gap is common. That’s where we get such gems as guesstimate, spork, brunch and even linner (the meal between lunch and dinner).

So, the next time you’re searching for a word and nothing that comes to mind seems to fit; mind the gap and if you’re feeling particularly wordsmithy… fill it.