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I am looking for a word or phrase that means "a long sought out goal that seems impossible to achieve" but without any religious connotations. Any suggestions?

My intended usage is as follows:

The holy grail in ABC is to identify XYZ

where ABC is an academic field of study and XYZ is a solution approach with desired features.

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3  
The word you're looking for is MacGuffin. –  John Lawler Jul 25 at 16:01
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No, not MacGuffin –  GEdgar Jul 25 at 16:46
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In some contexts you could call such a goal the person's Great White Whale. Of course, that would imply an unhealthy obsession. –  Jolenealaska Jul 26 at 1:06
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Hm. Have you considered "holy grail?" –  emodendroket Jul 26 at 2:47
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How about "unobtanium". –  Mr Lister Jul 27 at 17:40

14 Answers 14

up vote 21 down vote accepted

Phrases like "the Holy Grail of Physics", are snowclones of the form "Z is the X of Y". They work because X's properties are well-understood and can be used to immediately relate Z and Y.

So if someone says

Artificial Intelligence is the Holy Grail of Computer Science

Then everyone knows what that means: AI is something that is rumoured to exist (or be possible to create) and it is as fervently desired to computer scientists as the real Holy Grail would be to religious people/Indiana Jones.

The point of all of this is that it doesn't matter what X is; all that matters is that when "the X of Y" is put together, you understand what the comparison is.

Examples:

The Switzerland of Africa

The Elvis of hip hop

etc.

The reason I say all of this in answer to your question is that "The Holy Grail of Y" doesn't have religious connotation, and it's the best phrase to use. It's a mythical object that has been the source of quests to discover its location, etc. It has inspired many fictional tales. People dream of finding it. There is scant reason to believe it could actually exist, but it is plausible. Its origin is in literature, not religious practice. So use "the Holy Grail of Y", just like you freely say "Good-bye" without worrying about its etymology.

A further reason to use this phrase is because it only works when people get your reference. Example: bib's comment below, where his father calls himself "the Derek Jeter of mussels", was completely opaque to me because I have no idea who Derek Jeter is. If you find a synonym, such as Andrew Leach's "El Dorado", which actually suits your meaning, you have to be careful that it is obvious why you are making the connection. Everyone knows what the Holy Grail of Y is. People might not understand what the El Dorado of Y is.

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My 90 year-old father, upon completing a large bowl of shellfish, declared himself to be the Derek Jeter of mussels!. –  bib Jul 25 at 16:16
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OP might have meant something that does not sound religious. To me, "Holy Grail" sounds like religious and the origin has religious connotations as you mentioned. Even the word "holy" itself evokes religious connotations. Though this answer is a nice explanation about the phrase and the phrase you mentioned is used in non-religious contexts. –  ermanen Jul 25 at 18:24
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It has about as much religious connotation as "Holy cow!" does. –  Mr. Shiny and New 安宇 Jul 25 at 18:56
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This is a snowclone in the same sense as it is an expression. This is not specific enough, and most of this answer doesn't have anything to do with the question (I'm not sure if the question has been edited). From the link you gave us, a number of other plug-and-play cliches (that have nothing to do with unattainable goals) are also snowclones. –  Asad Jul 26 at 5:56
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@ermanen: just because the word "holy" is in there it does not imply a religious meaning to the sentence. "Holy grail" is such a commonly used expression that any religious connotation is lost. It may, however make you think of killer rabbits and african swallows... –  nico Jul 26 at 20:41

You could say chasing after the sun.

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The word you're looking for is Moonshot. A moonshot is usually a highly risky attempt to reach a very rewarding goal. It's when success seems unlikely, but you're going for it anyway.

For a discussion of the word, see here.

As an example use of the word, here's a WSJ headline from today:

Google's New Moonshot Project: the Human Body

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I think this is the best answer, aside from "Holy Grail" itself. –  Charles Jul 25 at 16:57
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I like this answer but I think a "moonshot" is different from a "holy grail". The moonshot is risky and hard to do and expensive, but clearly possible. The holy grail may not even exist and nobody knows what it might cost to find it... it could be easily found or require a very costly search. But if found, it constitutes a major victory with potentially huge ramifications. The moonshot, by contrast, is more of an engineering challenge than a revolutionary discovery waiting to be discovered. –  Mr. Shiny and New 安宇 Jul 25 at 17:54
    
@Mr.ShinyandNew安宇 Yes, that's a fair point. The two are conceptually slightly different. However, in many contexts, they're used to refer to similar things. –  Newb Jul 25 at 18:00
    
I disagree with the contention that a "moonshot" is clearly possible. Part of the risk is that it indeed may not be. One of Google's moonshot projects is human immortality. Is that definitely possible? Who knows! –  pimlottc Jul 26 at 2:52
    
"Moonshot" implies a one-time, hopeful effort to attain something desirable, while "Holy Grail" is the actual desirable thing. A "Holy Grail" has already been subject to continual pursuit.One can try a Moonshot to attain a Holy Grail, for instance. –  user77595 Jul 27 at 23:56

I'm going to mention an interesting phrase: ultima thule

The term ultima Thule in medieval geographies denotes any distant place located beyond the "borders of the known world".

Virgil coined the term Ultima Thule (Georgics, 1. 30) meaning furthest land as a symbolic reference to denote a far-off land or an unattainable goal.

Source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thule

It is still used today in this symbolic sense.


There is also will-o'-the-wisp

a goal that cannot be reached, a delusive or elusive goal

It originally means the atmospheric ghost lights seen at night over marshy grounds. But it is used in this symbolic sense in literature.

Source:http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/will-o%27-the-wisp


Other than that, there is a pipe dream but it wouldn't be suitable for your context. It is worth to mention because it is related.

an idea that could never happen because it is impossible

The classless society is just a pipe dream.

Source: http://idioms.thefreedictionary.com/a+pipe+dream


Note: I gave this answer in another question which is closed.

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(Ultima) Thule was the first thing I thought of too. +1 for that. Not sure pipe dream is really a good choice given the usage example, though—the Holy Grail of something may be unrealistic, but it's worth going for; a pipe dream is something best dropped ’cause you'll never get there anyway. –  Janus Bahs Jacquet Jul 25 at 15:55
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Ultima Thule is a wonderful term. Great suggestion. On the other hand, I think that pipe dream is not quite appropriate in this context. –  Newb Jul 25 at 16:59
    
I updated my answer. Thanks for the catch. –  ermanen Jul 25 at 17:43
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Ultima thule is a great choice if you don't want anyone to know what you're talking about. –  emodendroket Jul 26 at 2:51
    
Wonderful phrase, thank you! @emodendroket – That can only change through the efforts of people like us :-) –  user77595 Jul 27 at 23:52

You could say you're...

searching for the pot of gold [at the end of the rainbow] (thousands of hits in Google Books)

...but the strong implication there is that goal really is unreachable (it doesn't just seem so). Note that the idiomatic usage is so well known that just pot of gold is all that's needed...

I take it that the "pot of gold" for most of us is happiness (The Rotarian - Oct 1938)

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Also, the Golden Fleece. But that apparently wasn't impossible since Jason got it. –  bib Jul 25 at 16:14
    
@bib: I couldn't say Golden Fleece has never been used "figuratively" in that way, but I've never come across it that I recall. And whereas my cited Rotarian example above seems a perfectly natural usage to me, I'd find it really "odd" if pot of gold were replaced by Golden Fleece. –  FumbleFingers Jul 25 at 16:18
    
I don't really disagree, hence the upvote. –  bib Jul 25 at 16:20
    
I'm sure I would recognise the figurativeness of "golden fleece" if it was in quotes. –  Mr Lister Jul 26 at 16:32
    
@Mr Lister: I can't begin to imagine what a "literal" golden fleece might mean, so I guess all references to it must to to some extent "figurative". But it's rarely referenced outside the context of Jason and the Argonauts. –  FumbleFingers Jul 26 at 17:37

If you are not really trying to suggest impossiblity, just the extreme difficulty and rarity of the achievement, you might try Everest

high point; summit: The book is an Everest in the field of historical scholarship. [Infoplease Dictionary]

Similarly in [Collins]

any high point of ambition or achievement

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Right. If you are writing an academical paper, I would entirely avoid the "holy grail" concept. In science there are no such things as "holy grails". (It would make you sound naive or not used to scientific papers.)

Personally, just my opinion, a simple expression such as:

"one of the most important and still unsolved problems in ABC is ..."

or something like that, might work just fine.

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In some cases El Dorado could be a possibility for something which is much sought-after but ultimately unachievable. As it's a Spanish expression from the South American Conquest, the phrase has never had any religious connotations.

During the 16th and 17th centuries, Europeans, still fascinated by and ignorant of the New World, believed that a hidden city of immense wealth existed. Many searched for this treasure, in quests that ended in the loss of countless lives. The illustration of El Dorado's location on maps only made matters worse, as it made some people think that the city of El Dorado's existence had been confirmed. The mythical city of El Dorado on Lake Parime was marked on English and other maps until its existence was disproved by Alexander von Humboldt during his Latin-America expedition (1799–1804)

[Wikipedia]

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This looks like a good candidate for a synonym, that actually fits. However, in my opinion it's not as clear as "the Holy Grail of X", mainly because I don't think anybody uses it this way. +1 though for a good synonym. –  Mr. Shiny and New 安宇 Jul 25 at 20:55

Avoid colloquialisms in an academic paper, in part because they require knowledge — and a shared understanding — of a domain irrelevant to the actual discourse.

Avoid colloquialisms even in informal writing for the same reason: you’re trying to guide the reader’s thoughts and emotions, and colloquialisms can divert the reader into thoughts like those expressed above.

If I needed it, I’d stick with Holy Grail. None of the alternatives offered conveys the same meaning.

However, using it doesn't transform the discussion into a religious matter, and most educated people will at least know the reference — just as they should also know something about the rest of the world’s great religions. If not, you can have a nice chat with the person you’re speaking with and bring the world a little closer together.

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+1 for all 3 points you raised, but especially the last two: (2) it's the best, (3) it's not about religion. –  Drew Sep 4 at 3:04

'Sisyphean task'--an impossible task. Named after Sisyphus, the king of ancient Corinth who blasphemed the gods and was condemned to Hades where his penalty was to forever roll a boulder up a hill to the top. But he was so fatigued by the effort as he pushed the boulder higher, he had to halt and the boulder rolled back to the bottom of the hill--and the effort had to be repeated for all eternity.

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As this is about academic fields, I would take a well known metaphor from the time-honoured field of alchemy:

"The philosopher's stone in ABC is to identify XYZ."

If you are really sure it's not achievable, you can also put it this way:

"The squaring of the circle in ABC would be to identify XYZ."

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Gah, beat me to it! –  Pharap Jul 27 at 5:55

If your audience is mathematical (or scientific/technical) several examples spring to mind.

This suggests it may be solvable in a half millennium or so:

The Fermat Theorem in ABC is to identify XYZ.

This suggests the problem solution is just getting under way:

The Riemann Hypothesis in ABC is to identify XYZ.

And these suggest that the problem is going to take a while:

XYZ in ABC could have been one of Hilbert's Problems.

or

XYZ in ABC is a Millennium Prize Problem candidate.

Mathematics is rather rich in "long sought out goal[s] that seem...impossible to achieve"

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How about saying the Higgs particle of X?

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But they found the Higgs particle (statistically speaking) –  Matt Эллен Jul 28 at 8:57

idk. I say "notable" because it is a fact that has particular significance or insight into how or to what end. lol

"In a notable study of the information systems technolgoy program, the project life cycle has projected new insights into developing a superior technology."

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OP asked for a word or phrase with the sense "a long sought out goal that seems impossible to achieve". "notable" does not have this sense. A Holy Grail would probably (but not necessarily) be notable, but one cannot infer that a notable thing is a Holy Grail. –  Spike0xff Sep 4 at 20:22

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