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I'm looking for a word, phrase, or idiom to describe a person or fictional device. In stories, especially horror and fantasy, there can be a character who is dismissed when they try to tell others what (they think) is happening.

I would like for this term to make no judgments on such characters, their messages, or deliveries. For example, some of the related terms I find assume predisposition. If the message is foreboding, a related term might be doomsayer:

one given to forebodings and predictions of impending calamity

Other terms question the character's reliability, like Chicken Little:

one who warns of or predicts calamity especially without justification

or this definition of alarmist, which challenges the sensibility of the warning:

a person who tends to raise alarms, especially without sufficient reason, as by exaggerating dangers or prophesying calamities.

Another phrase, cry wolf, carries the stigma that the warning is untrue:

to cry or complain about something when nothing is really wrong. (From the story wherein a child sounds the alarm frequently about a wolf when there is no wolf, only to be ignored when there actually is a wolf.)

These are labels other characters might apply to our subject. But suppose our subject:

  1. Speaks truth (that is, what he says is truly happening), or at least earnestly believes his claim
  2. Presents his issue sensibly
  3. Has not engaged in lying, joking, or other practices that would give others reason not to believe him

Then I don't believe any of these terms do justice in describing him, even if his claim is ridiculous.

In a sense, I'm looking for a hypernym to all the above terms. The words are all about people who warn and are not believed, but they have negative connotations appended to them: reasons to be skeptical (if not dismissive) of such a person's warnings.

Is there a term that means only "someone who warns others, who do not believe him"? If not, is there one to describe "an honest person who warns others sensibly and yet is not believed"?

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2 Answers 2

up vote 8 down vote accepted

Because I know my Greek mythology, metaphoric Cassandra is perfectly accessible to me. But it's a bit "literary", and I wouldn't normally use it in conversation because many people wouldn't know what I meant. In my opinion you're much more likely to be understood if you say someone is...

a [lone] voice [crying] in the wilderness
An individual advocating a course of action or proclaiming a message, who is unheeded; an individual whose opinion is proved to be right despite being ignored or contradicted by others

It's from John the Baptist in the Bible saying "I am the voice of one crying in the wilderness" when proclaiming the imminent coming of Christ, but even people who don't know that will normally be familiar with the more general use.


By way of illustrating the difference in prevalence beyond the dreaming spires of academia, check out Google results for "farage" "voice in the wilderness" and "farage" "cassandra" (Nigel Farage is a politician who's long advocated Britain's withdrawal from the European Union, but heretofore has been largely dismissed/ignored by the political establishment). Obviously there's a "gender clash" in calling Farage a Cassandra, but I'd say the main reason newspapers etc., aren't likely to do this is simply because they know many of their readers won't get the reference.

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1  
I like the neutrality of the phrase, particularly with gender and tone. And it seems that even without historical context, the meaning can be sussed out: the one voice out in the middle-of-nowhere -- who's going to listen to that? (Which is good, because I didn't know who Cassandra was before reading the other answers. When I imagined using Cassandra, I imagined giving some of her background to make sure my listeners knew what I was getting at.) As a bonus I think it's also evocative of similar figures, like Piggy from Lord of the Flies. –  dingo_dan May 26 at 18:27
    
@dingo_dan: I never thought of that but "Piggy" is a good example of a case where Cassandra really would come across as "weird". The out-of-context classical allusion, gender mismatch, connotations of mysticism and the supernatural, etc. would all work against it, but you could reasonably say he was a "voice in the wilderness" (only not really "lone", since Ralph was pretty much the same! :) –  FumbleFingers May 26 at 21:16

Such a person is often termed a Cassandra.

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At first I was a little hesitant about Cassandra, because of the habitual nature of it: it sounds like nobody believes anything Cassandra warns them about. (In my ideal case, the audience could heed some warnings from our subject but ignore others.) But the modern use of it is very close to what I want to describe. And besides, I imagine when the warning's serious enough or ignored by a large enough audience, our subject will feel like they're a Cassandra. I'll accept an answer tomorrow, and I think this is the one! –  dingo_dan May 25 at 20:54
    
Thanks for the Cassandra metaphor link. Though I knew about the mythical Cassandra, I was unfamiliar with the syndrome named after her. :) –  Erik Kowal May 25 at 21:21

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