Is there a word we lost the definition to? A word whose definition we lost to history? Something that is a part of our history but we forgot the meaning with time

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    In addition to jk's answer, and the linked question, it's probably also worth looking at partially deciphered languages (e.g. Etruscan). In these cases, some vocabulary is understood, but large portions have to be inferred from context. Sometimes this results in definitions like "some type of bird", but other times little can be inferred other than the part of speech and morphological class
    – Tristan
    Commented Jul 21, 2021 at 9:04
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    Even in non-dead languages (or at least languages whose later stages are still spoken), there are words whose definitions are lost in time. I recall reading about a hapax whose meaning could not be gleaned from context in a 14th-century manuscript or something like that – and that was in (Middle) English. If only I could remember what the word was, but I can’t, and Google is being singularly unhelpful… Commented Jul 21, 2021 at 9:34
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    You'll get lots of examples if you search "Google Books" for hapax legomenon unclear meaning
    – Alex B.
    Commented Jul 22, 2021 at 13:54
  • @JanusBahsJacquet might you be talking about the Battle of Maldon of 991? That's the first hapax I ever studied. King Byrhtnoth gives up a significant tactical advantage to his opponent "for his ofermōde" (line 89b). Which has been variously interpreted as "hubris" or "honor". Commented Jul 29, 2021 at 16:00
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    @RichArmstrong No, I don’t think so. I’m fairly sure this was more recent, and it wasn’t a big famous text like The Battle of Maldon, just some fairly obscure manuscript somewhere; and the word wasn’t a transparent formation whose exact meaning isn’t clear, but one whose base meaning was completely impossible to guess, akin to the Greek σαστηρ mentioned in an answer below. Commented Jul 29, 2021 at 16:25

7 Answers 7


Ancient Greek word ΣΑΣΤΗΡ (sastēr)

From 1890 to 1899, in pieces, a white marble slab was found by archaeologists in the ruins of an Ancient Greek colony Chersonesus, Greek Χερσόνησος (Khersónēsos), on the Crimean Peninsula, established in the 6th century BC. The slab (photo) was inscribed with a text in Ancient Greek being the civic oath of the Chersonesites (citizens of Chersonesus): description, Ancient Greek text and English translation. The text is thought to be inscribed in the beginning of the 3rd century BC.

Among the understandable oaths (“I will not betray anything to anyone, neither a Hellenic nor a barbarian,” “I will not violate democracy,” “I will not plot a conspiracy,” “I will be an enemy to malefactors”) there is one: “I will protect the saster (ΣΑΣΤΗΡ) for the people" (και τον σαστηρα τωι δαμωι διαφυλαξω, lines 24–25).

This word is not found in any other Greek text of the Old or New time. The literature on saster is extensive. There are many hypotheses, including some very eccentric ones. Max Fasmer and Lev Yelnitsky, for example, believed that the saster was the Scythian governor of Chersonesos, S. A. Zhebelev — that it was some kind of sacred object, for example an idol; V.V. Latyshev (the first publisher of the inscription) - that this is a kind of legal concept, for example, a civil oath. Most recently, I. Markov argues it is the city treasury. Parallels were sought for this word in Iranian and other languages. Historical novels appeared, which featured the sacred saster towering over the Chersonesus coast; in Sevastopol, a modern city situated near the ancient Chersonesus, a festival called "Saster of Chersonesos" was held. On the Internet, you can listen to a song with the words "And I will find a magic saster" (with an emphasis on "a") and read verses with the line "An unknown saster hiding from us" (with an emphasis on "e").

No one knows for sure what ΣΑΣΤΗΡ is.

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    Great answer, I never knew about this! What if we pretend it is an IE word, what root it ascends to (assuming -ter is a suffix)? What does seh2s mean in PIE?
    – Anixx
    Commented Jul 22, 2021 at 4:47
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    My first crude idea was German Zaster "dow, money" with an interesting etymology from Romani. The meaning would fit to Markov's interpretation :-) Commented Jul 22, 2021 at 7:53
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    @Anixx Crimea was mostly populated by Ionians so a long ā would be expected to give an eta. The presence of the initial s also makes an inherited Greek source unlikely and rules out a PIE root beginning with s if the word is Iranic in origin. If the word is Indo-European we'd need a root beginning in ḱ, with the second s being either a s or another ḱ. That said, agentive -tēr becomes -tā in Iranic. Perhaps a substantivised adjective in -teros (which gives -tarah > -tar in Iranic, which the Greeks may have confused with their own suffix -tēr)?
    – Tristan
    Commented Jul 22, 2021 at 9:20
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    Could be from PIE *ḱestróm (cut, separate) > Latin castrum "castle", Sanskrit śastrám "knife"? May mean anything separated or cutting.
    – Anixx
    Commented Jul 22, 2021 at 10:20
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    @OmarL Very possible. A lot of such hapax legomena found in the ancient texts are very often proper nouns (names of people or geographic locales). Sometimes it's a corruption - spelling practices were highly unstandardized at the time. Another hypothesis is a dialectal feature. In any case, we won't solve it here. (I'm by no means Latyshev or Zhebelev, who worked with various epigraphic materials on a regular basis and were highly proficient in many dead languages.)
    – Alex B.
    Commented Jul 22, 2021 at 13:35

There are many such words. Even for a really well-attested dead language like Latin such words are known, e.g., aurichalc, haematopus, or cortumio (all three examples taken from the answers to this question on latin.se)

  • thinking Not sure how it came to be or where it came from, but "cortume" in my (pt-BR speaking area) area is slang for a set of different "unpleasant smells". Not sure if related or not to "cortumio".
    – T. Sar
    Commented Jul 23, 2021 at 20:04
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    @T.Sar Google suggests that cortume is a misspelling of curtume ‘tanning, tannery’, which would make sense (if you’ve ever been to a tannery, you’ll know that they do in fact reek). Curtume has a well-established etymology, so assuming that is how the slang term arose, there is no relation with Latin curtumio. Even if it isn’t, though, there’s almost certainly no relation, unless this very obscure, old Latin word were, for some inexplicable reason, borrowed recently in Brazil for use in a seemingly wholly unrelated sense. Commented Jul 28, 2021 at 12:14
  • @JanusBahsJacquet It might be related to curtume as in the tannery. That said, it isn't a recent term by any means.
    – T. Sar
    Commented Jul 28, 2021 at 12:56
  • @T.Sar By ‘recent’, I meant ‘some time within the past couple of hundred years or so’, not ‘after you left high school’. The point was that if there is any relation to the Latin word, it must be that the Latin word has been borrowed into Modern (Brazilian) Portuguese, not inherited directly throughout the ages. Commented Jul 28, 2021 at 13:01

A surprising example is that one of the words in the "Lord's Prayer", one of the most significant prayers of the Christian tradition, has an unknown meaning.

The original Greek word is epiousios (ἐπιούσιος) and has traditionally been translated as "daily" - but that translation has no particularly strong foundation. It occurs in the phrase "Τὸν ἄρτον ἡμῶν τὸν ἐπιούσιον δὸς ἡμῖν σήμερον", or "Give us today our epiousion bread".

See for example the Wikipedia page for epiousios.

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    Aren't the translations to Latin or Syriac or Coptic old enough to contain a reliable translation? Commented Jul 22, 2021 at 10:16
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    @VladimirF Maybe someone with more expertise than me will be able to comment more extensively - but it was problematic at least by the time of Jerome's Vulgate in the late 4th century. Jerome translated epiousion into Latin in two different ways, as quotidianum (daily) in Luke 11:3, but as supersubstantialem ("supersubstantial") in Matthew 6:11. Commented Jul 22, 2021 at 11:24
  • I wanted to post that, too, but remembered about it when I'd already posted my answer. This word is really fascinating.
    – Yellow Sky
    Commented Jul 22, 2021 at 15:59
  • @JamesMartin I think Jerome just reused the existing older translation there. I was hoping more about Syriac, though. Commented Jul 23, 2021 at 18:19
  • @VladimirF sounds like you are already better informed than me here. It would be very interesting to learn more - a Google search for 'peshitta epiousios' throws up a few promising things.... Commented Jul 24, 2021 at 11:41

In Genesis 6:14, Noah's Ark is made of עצי גפר (gopher wood). "Gopher" is just a phonetic transliteration of the ancient Hebrew גֹּפֶר. No one knows what it means, except that it is presumably some kind of wood.

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    Another example from the old testament is "sela"
    – mousetail
    Commented Jul 22, 2021 at 12:17
  • @mousetail I heard "sela" is realted to some word for "hanging", and so is used as a word for "suspense", "pause", and so on. Especially in the Psalms. Commented Jul 22, 2021 at 12:35
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    @OmarL just like with gopher wood, there are theories, but there is not enough evidence to be confident of any one theory. For instance, to prove it's related to a word for "hanging", you have to have a history of its use in different places showing the evolution, but all we have is the 74 uses in the Bible that aren't very clear from context. (The "hanging" theory is definitely a possibility, though.) See en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Selah. Commented Jul 22, 2021 at 13:06

Hapax legomenon

This is defined as a word that only appears once in a given context - it can be in a single book, an author's complete works, or in the published works of an entire language (whether a dead language or an extant one). In the last sense, it would generally be a word whose definition is lost to history. The linked article gives a few examples.

(Note: This is not a lost word itself, but a word that potentially describes such words.)

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    This isn't true! The meaning of a hapax can be obvious — the only requirement is that it only occur once in the corpus, so certainly while some hapax legomena are lost words, not all are.
    – jogloran
    Commented Jul 22, 2021 at 0:13
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    @jogloran I said "generally". There are obviously exceptions, and of course this only applies when talking about an entire language, while the term can also be used on smaller corpuses (e.g. a single book or author). But when a word is used only once in the corpus of an entire language, it's usually hard to be sure of its definition. (Though that doesn't stop people from guessing in some cases.) Commented Jul 22, 2021 at 13:11
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    This is just wrong. For example, in Homer there are roughly 1000 hapaxes (depending on how you define them), and very few have unknown definitions. Many are just unusual forms of a known word, such as an Aeolic or Ionian form. Some are names of ships. Many are compound words whose meaning is obvious and can be verified from context as well.
    – user12663
    Commented Jul 23, 2021 at 13:41
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    This answer is not very cromulent. Commented Jul 23, 2021 at 14:49

Of course, we could take the question to an extreme: as I understand it, no-one has yet managed to decode Linear-A, so we have a whole language that we have "lost the definition to".


The bible is full of such words. We can suspect what they mean (and being the bible - there are "canon" meanings). But we don't really know. Many of these words were migrated to modern Hebrew - and got a modern unrelated meaning.

for example - אקדח (gun). We know that it was probably some kind of gem. But we don't know what kind. https://www.studylight.org/lexicons/eng/hebrew/688.html

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