I'm Not So Sure...

Let's face it: there are going to be times when things seem too vague, or too complicated, to even start to talk about them. The times when "confusion" doesn't paint an accurate picture. This list is for those times. There is a very large vocabulary for referring to what we are unsure of, those things we can't quite grasp, or even see clearly through the haze of our misunderstanding. The hope is that if we can accurately and eloquently describe our problem, we will be on the road to clearing it up. Here are fifteen words about the misty, the ill-formed, and the complex.

Activities for this list:

definitions & notes only words
  1. nebulous
    lacking definite form or limits
    Experts blast a nebulous regulatory framework for letting projects to sink into legal limbos, sometimes for years, exasperating environmentalists and companies alike.
    —Reuters Jun 10, 2014
    This word is from Latin Nebulosus, which meant "misty, foggy." The English word with this literal meaning has been around since the 14th century but the figurative use of the word, as in the example sentence, isn't attested until the mid-19th century.
  2. amorphous
    having no definite form or distinct shape
    So people with mental illnesses are not some amorphous “other” — they are our family members, friends, neighbors, co-workers, employers or acquaintances.
    —Seattle Times Aug 18, 2014
    From Greek amorphos "without form, shapeless, deformed."
  3. murky
    clouded as with sediment
    Exactly why the Russian soldiers wandered across the border remains murky, though Moscow maintains it was an accident.
    —Time Aug 29, 2014
    As the example sentence shows, there is also a metaphorical extension of this word, meaning "unclear." Murk comes from Old Norse myrkr "darkness."
  4. indistinct
    not clearly defined or easy to perceive or understand
    These should have a definition to them, that you’re able to identify the instrument creating the notes, not just a messy, indistinct “thump thump thump.”
    —Forbes Mar 16, 2014
    in- is a negative marker, and distinct is from Latin distinctus, " to distinguish."
  5. indeterminate
    not fixed or known in advance
    Mathematical models allow for the possibility that our cosmos is long-lived yet not entirely stable, and may - at some indeterminate point - be destroyed.
    —BBC Jun 30, 2014
    From Late Latin indeterminatus, "undefined."
  6. muddle
    a confused multitude of things
    The tonal shift is jarring but typical of this endearing muddle, which flails in search of an identity. 
    —New York Times Aug 21, 2014
    Appropriately perhaps, the etymology of this word is a bit unclear. It could be a direct descendent of mud or could derive from the Dutch verb for "to make water muddy", moddelen.
  7. tenebrous
    dark and gloomy
    The set is tenebrous with slasher-sequel gloom, and the cast appears breathless with fear.
    —New York Times Oct 14, 2012
    From Latin tenebrae "darkness." Interestingly, tenebrae is also connected to English temerity, the link being a semantic sense of "blindness" or " lack of foresight."
  8. impalpable
    not perceptible to the touch
    The shadow was, so to speak, impalpable; vague yet sinister.
    — Harold Bindloss
    From Late Latin palpabilis "that may be touched or felt."
  9. recondite
    difficult to penetrate
    In any case the data are often expressed in so mathematically recondite a form that they are unintelligible to the majority of historical profession.
    —Forbes Jun 18, 2013
    From Latin recondere, "store away, hide, conceal." The modern sense is related to this by the idea that some things are so complicated or difficult to comprehend that they remain "hidden" from most people.
  10. abstruse
    difficult to penetrate
    This was all kind of abstruse, until Mr. Manners-Bell provided an example that I think many supply chain professionals will relate to.
    —Forbes Jun 3, 2014
    The Latin abstrudere literally means "to thrust away", but it was used to mean "conceal", and in a similar fashion to recondite above, things that are abstruse are, because of their complexity and impenetrability, in some sense "concealed."
  11. turbid
    clouded as with sediment
    The turbid sense of groping and viewless ignorance gave place to the lucidity of a possible scheme.
    —Agnes Mary Clerke
    From Latin turba "turmoil, crowd." Turba itself is probably from Greek tyrbe "turmoil, tumult, disorder."
  12. arcane
    requiring secret or mysterious knowledge
    At worst, computing is bewildering and alienating, sometimes requiring intervention of technical specialists with arcane knowledge bases.
    —Slate Oct 31, 2014
    Latin arcanus, "secret, hidden, private, concealed", is the immediate ancestor but this word itself can be traced back to arca, " chest, box, place for safekeeping", in other words where one would "conceal" their "secrets."
  13. ambiguous
    having more than one possible meaning
    In her dissent, Judge Jenny Rivera wrote that the contract is "unclear and contradictory," and its use of the term affiliate is ambiguous.
    —US News Oct 23, 2014
    The Latin verb from which this adjective derives, ambigere means "to dispute about" and ambiguous things are often debated in a heated fashion.
  14. bewilder
    be a mystery to
    It’s overly complex, with a bewildering array of menus and control screens.
    —New York Times Aug 20, 2014
    This word breaks down into two parts: be-, which is serves an intensifier function and may here be translated as "thoroughly", and wilder, an archaic verb meaning " lead astray, lure into the wilds." wilder is probably related to wilderness. There are other nature-based expressions for being perplexed or overwhelmed, like " in the weeds."
  15. esoteric
    understandable only by an enlightened inner circle
    Unhinged from any use-value, art is esoteric and incomprehensible to those without the right education.
    —Salon Jul 14, 2013
    From Greek esoterikos " belonging to an inner circle", from the comparative adverb esotero, "more within."

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