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I have been trying to find a word that describes a concept that is only defined by the lack for something. For example, there isn't really any such thing as cold, it is a concept we use to describe the lack of heat. So is there a word to describe the kind of word that "cold" is?

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One could however see things alternatively: heat could be considered as the lack of inertia keeping molecules still. Interesting idea though. I'd be curious to see if there is a way of expressing this idea in a concise fashion. – James Poulson Jun 5 '11 at 13:17
@James: Er...from a physics point of view that suggestion is not particularly well founded. Inertia doesn't "keep [things] still" it keeps their momentum constant, which is a different thing. The distinction between heat and cold is a good one because there is a zero for temperature, and that represents the maximum "coldness". – dmckee Jun 5 '11 at 13:55
Here's a link to a list of what I'm happy to call 'privatives'. It's pretty substantial, even though it's actually only concerned with those starting with the Greek a- and an- prefixes, and has a rider pointing out that only the 'significant' words are included... wordinfo.info/unit/2838/ip:1 – FumbleFingers Jun 5 '11 at 16:53
@dmckee: You're right about physics (been a while since I read through textbooks on the subject). What I meant to say is a cold objet is lacking caloric energy but it could be said to be "gaining" in terms of other properties. This is why I still feel it's a relative concept as is implied by the "lack of something", something being the point of reference. – James Poulson Jun 5 '11 at 17:56
Both privative and negative are good answers. We often have a negative definition (containing something like not, un-, etc.) of words that have a privative meaning (words that concern the removal or possibly the absence of something). – Cerberus Jun 5 '11 at 19:57

@Matt Ellen used the word privative in this sense in his (closed) question, Is the truth a privative?

He used the word as a noun and the link from his question to the word's definition at Dictionary.com does have this:

-noun something that is deprived.

I'm not sure how common this usage is. NOAD has this:

privative |ˈpraɪvədɪv|
(of an action or state) marked by the absence, removal, or loss of some quality or attribute that is normally present.
• (of a statement or term) denoting the absence or loss of an attribute or quality : the wording of the privative clause.
• Grammar (of a particle or affix) expressing absence or negation, for example, the a- (from the alpha privative in Greek), meaning “not,” in atypical.

a privative attribute, quality, or proposition.

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I'm not sure if I've heard this word before - if so, only in the context of formal logic and philosophy. Of course, this doesn't mean it isn't a good word, but I would beware of overlapping with any technical definition. – Marcin Jun 5 '11 at 14:27
@Marcin: I seem to be familiar with this usage, though that may just be because I also read Matt's question recently. But the meaning seems pretty transparent anyway, and definitions & references abound on the net, so I'm not sure why you're wary of it. – FumbleFingers Jun 5 '11 at 16:48
:-D I was about to come and say! – Matt E. Эллен Jun 5 '11 at 16:53
Even Terry Pratchett used it ('knurd' being what you are after too much coffee and not enough alcohol IIRC), so I don't think it's too technical. – TimLymington Jun 5 '11 at 16:55
@TimLyminton: Thank you so so so so so so much. I have been looking for where I found the definition of privative that I used in my question. It's in The Science of Discworld! Which, by chance, also points out that the truth is a privative :D – Matt E. Эллен Jun 5 '11 at 17:04

I would describe this as a "negative concept", or "negative definition", in the same fashion (and by analogy with) a negative right.

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One might call it a "residual concept".

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