An adjacency relation is one which denotes whether two objects are adjacent.

The two neighbors are adjacent, and hence have an adjacency relation.

What is the equivalent for a "contains" relation, for example:

The box contains oranges, and hence they have a ??? relationship.

I am not sure whether "containment" is appropriate given its connotations.

Note that the word may not necessarily be based on "contains", perhaps on a synonym.

  • The word 'containment' is probably most commonly encountered in the political/military domain. In fact, Collins doesn't give the more transparent definition (The act or condition of containing _ AHD & RHK Webster's). However, that definition is valid, and even appears in the compound 'containment metaphors' See container metaphors Commented May 22, 2014 at 12:30
  • There seems to be no such noun derivative of the verb contain. We may have to select a synonym of contain and use its derivative instead.
    – Kris
    Commented May 22, 2014 at 12:31
  • 1
    @EdwinAshworth How about 'continence'? Or is that too much associated with one particular form of containment?
    – WS2
    Commented May 22, 2014 at 13:02
  • 1
    Try to find a sentence that would use the word (and isn't totally contrived like the one you have given), and you'll realise why there isn't a suitable word. Adjacent isn't even equivalent to 'contains', which is more like 'adjacent to'.
    – OJFord
    Commented May 28, 2014 at 22:57
  • 2
    The basic analogy is not entirely apt for a reason not yet mentioned. Adjacency is a transitive predicate: if one thing is adjacent to a second, then the second is adjacent to the first. This does not hold for the predicate 'contains.' Hence you are not likely to find a word that 'measures up' neatly to 'adjacency'. 'Encapsulation' is my favorite of the suggestions so far.
    – Merk
    Commented May 30, 2014 at 6:37

17 Answers 17


There seems to be some reluctance to sanction the use of 'containment' in a spatial sense.

Mukergee and Sarkar have no such qualms in their article Grounded Acquisition of Containment Prepositions :

... Here we demonstrate that it is possible for a purely perceptual system to form notions of containment, well recognised as one of the earliest spatial concepts arising around the age of six months (Casasola et al, 2003)....

And neither do Lockwood et al in Automatic Classification of Containment and Support Spatial Relations in English and Dutch:

... For example, in English containment relationships are categorised as 'in' and support relationships are classified as 'on'....

  • 1
    Yes, 'containment' is clearly the answer here. To 'contain' means 'to hold within'. A container is an object that restricts its contents (i.e., holds them) from becoming non-contents. The "political" usage is just a simple metaphorical extension (and it's not so metaphorical).
    – nomen
    Commented May 28, 2014 at 22:31
  • As a random example of use in the wild, the documentation of Inform7 (a programming language for interactive fiction) uses the word containment when discussing how to model such a relationship.
    – starwed
    Commented Jun 1, 2014 at 14:48

There are two ways to answer the question.

First (the serious answer) consider how relationships are named in scholarly discourse in the topic. An influential paper on topological relationships in natural language semantics includes the following passage:

Most approaches to spatial language have assumed that the simplest spatial notions are (after Piaget) topological and universal (containment, contiguity, proximity, support, represented as semantic primitives such as IN, ON, UNDER, etc.)

If scholars who discuss containment relationships use the term containment, you could hardly be considered silly for doing the same.

Second (the facetious answer). Adjacent takes its nominal form from the paradigm for the Latin source word from which it ultimately derives. The present active neuter participle for Latin adjacere 'lie beside' is adjacentia 'lying beside'. Contain ultimately derives from Latin continere 'hold together'. Its present active neuter participle is continentia 'holding together'. So the word you are looking for is continence. But even in Latin continentia could refer to self-restraint and chastity. Medical use of the term in English dates to the early 20th century (though incontinent is attested in the 18th century).

  • 1
    If the box has an incontinent relationship with the oranges, perhaps it leaks orange juice?
    – Andy
    Commented May 29, 2014 at 14:10
  • @Andy very funny.
    – user31341
    Commented May 29, 2014 at 22:49

I'm not sure that the "containment" question can be correlated to adjacency. Adjacency is a mutual relationship, both parties are adjacent to the other. The oranges will never contain the box. The box will always be the dominant party in this example, thereby fulfilling the requirement of restricting growth, if you will. I like "container-contained", but it does sound a little too textbook for conversational use. The cop-out answer of "There isn't an answer" is looking better and better.

  • Absolutely, it's the mutual relationship that's key. The relationship needs to apply to both the box and the oranges. As I mentioned in the comments to the question symbiotic describes it for living things. What's needed is an inanimate version of symbiotic (sort of). Feel free to add another answer if you think of one. I won't be giving out the bounty until it is due.
    – Frank
    Commented May 28, 2014 at 19:47
  • I kept coming back to symbiotic as well, but couldn't come up with an inanimate approximation.
    – Brian K
    Commented May 28, 2014 at 20:13
  • The box contains oranges, and hence they have a coexisting relationship. [?] To exist together, at the same time, or in the same place. They could exist apart but not without breaking the relationship. Commented May 28, 2014 at 21:33

In mathematics you could say one is a subset of the other (in abstract term) or that they have an inclusion relationship.

Containment of one item into another is, however, a directional relation as opposed to adjacency. Therefore the xxx relationship may not indicate which is inside which.


I don't really get the reluctance to accept containment.

Compare its definition with that of adjacency on Dictionary.com, particularly where they provide the Collins English Dictionary definition.


the act or condition of containing...


being near or close...

Both then have an 'especially' clause. For containment, it's the political/military definition that has everyone here thinking twice. For adjacency, it's sharing a common boundary. But we aren't thinking twice about using it to describe the relationship between close objects that do not share a boundary.

I tend to agree that due to the asymmetry of containment and the symmetry of adjacency, as relationships, the semantic analogy is limited. As it happens, I think containment mirrors adjacency better than contains mirrors adjacent.


I'll take another stab at this. The problem is that the analogy "adjacent is to adjacency as contains is to ______," is not in parallel form. Adjacent is an adjective but contains is a verb. To be parallel, contained should be used, as in: adjacent is to adjacency as contained is to ________. As adjacency is the quality described by saying that two things are adjacent, a word is needed for the quality described by saying that something is contained. One way to name the quality of something being contained is inclusion.


Perhaps a compositional relationship:

composition: (n) The combining of distinct parts or elements to form a whole.

adj: compositional

The elements {box, oranges} have a compositional relationship because when taken together, the box and oranges form a box of oranges.

  • 1
    +1 That might be it. The relationship between both the box and the oranges is compositional because together they make a box of oranges. Without one or the other there is no box of oranges. That sounds like a good candidate.
    – Frank
    Commented May 28, 2014 at 19:29
  • @Frank Yes, exactly. That was my thinking as well. Cheers.
    – njboot
    Commented May 28, 2014 at 19:34
  • Whoever down voted this answer please add a comment as to why. It might not be the best answer, but I think it's certainly a good one and providing an explanation as to why it's not would be helpful to both me and the community.
    – njboot
    Commented Jun 1, 2014 at 14:53
  • 1
    Well, I downvoted this because it is completely wrong. As other answers have indicated, this simply doesn't map to the sense the OP was asking about. Normally I only leave a comment if I think an answer can be improved; I simply disagree with this one. Things can have a compositional relationship without any idea of containment, and things can be in a containment relationship without composing anything.
    – starwed
    Commented Jun 1, 2014 at 14:57
  • @starwed thank you for the reply and reasoned response. It seems that this actually was the relationship the OP was referring to given the OP +1'd it
    – njboot
    Commented Jun 1, 2014 at 17:08

I think "containment" is inappropriate, as it implies that the purpose of the relationship is restriction.

I also disagree that this is a "compositional" relationship; the term is too vague. It could describe many relationships between nouns - 'a bunch of flowers', for example - without necessarily implying one thing being within the other.

And conversely, if an oven contains a cake, that should be equivalent to the box of oranges, but it's nonsense to say an "oven of cake". Which is to say you can have one thing within another, and it's not necessarily 'compositional'.

How about "nesting"? See the third meaning of the verb here:

to form a hierarchy, series, or sequence of with each member, element, or set contained in or containing the next

I like this because it means both 'contained in' and 'containing'.

  • But the purpose of a container is restriction... It restricts its contents from being non-contents.
    – nomen
    Commented May 28, 2014 at 22:18
  • Hi @nomen. Thanks for pointing this out. You're completely right, of course. I disagree with 'containment' only on grounds of personal taste. For me it suggests keeping something harmful under control.
    – djb
    Commented May 28, 2014 at 22:23
  • Nesting? How about nestling? The oranges can be nestling inside the box, can the box be described as nestling the oranges?
    – Frank
    Commented May 29, 2014 at 3:02
  • Hi @Frank. I don't think one thing can nestle another.
    – djb
    Commented May 29, 2014 at 7:03

A simple approach:

If "are adjacent" is one by the other, "contains" is one within the other. (instead of within, inside or in can be used also)

So the answer is:

one-within-the-other relationship

As an etymological approach, I'm going to say encapsulating relationship. (or encapsulation)

encapsulate: from en- (1) "make, put in" + capsule + -ate

capsule: from Latin capsula "small box or chest," diminutive of capsa "box, case, chest"

-ate: verbal suffix for Latin verbs in -are, identical with -ate (1).

So, the word originally means putting in a box. As the example suggests, we put oranges in a box. There you go!

  • 2
    (Encapsulatory?) or Encapsulation relationship, works better? Maybe not...
    – Mari-Lou A
    Commented May 29, 2014 at 3:56
  • Hmm encapsulatory does not seem like a word. But "encapsulating relationship" is used in this sense also. Nice source to back up! :)
    – ermanen
    Commented May 29, 2014 at 4:01

The word enclosure is the best alternative to containment I could find. From Collins:

the act of enclosing or state of being enclosed

  • That's it. enclosure is the relationship; it's the only one that goes both ways without having to add in any extra stuff. @JasonM was so close but enclosing is only one half. Keshlam noted it in a comment but you can't 'bountificate' a comment.
    – Frank
    Commented Jun 4, 2014 at 7:36

I'd go with container/contained relationship.

The box contains oranges, and hence they have a container/contained relationship.

Alternately, penetration relationship is a concept you might want to consider (See p. 25).

  • I think that's what Edwin was getting at but I'm not convinced. It looks like a text book question (it might not be, I did ask for clarification but none was forthcoming) especially with the additional hint of not necessarily based on contains. Feel free to add another answer if you can think of one.
    – Frank
    Commented May 28, 2014 at 18:58
  • @Frank I continue to think "container/contained relationship" is the best fit here. "Adjacency relation" makes sense only because one is adjacent to another (and vice-versa).
    – Elian
    Commented Jun 1, 2014 at 16:25

I'd go with enclosing, but it isn't really a natural usage.

  • It needs to apply to both parties, the box and the oranges, in the same way that the adjacent relationship applies to both neighbours. I'm sure there is an answer because the question sounds like a textbook question. Feel free to add another answer if you can think of one.
    – Frank
    Commented May 28, 2014 at 18:55
  • "Enclosure" would be the general relationship composed of "enclosed in" and "enclosed by"
    – keshlam
    Commented May 28, 2014 at 21:50
  • @keshlam Enclosure is the (my accepted) answer but I can't bounty a comment.
    – Frank
    Commented Jun 4, 2014 at 7:45

Adjacent is to adjacency as contains is to package. Two things side by side are adjacent. Two things, one containing the other form a package. Package can refer at one and the same time to the container and its contents so enclosed. Whereas with adjacency, the relationship of the two objects is beside each other, with containment, the relationship is within and without each other.

The box contains oranges, and hence they have a packaging relationship.

  • 1
    The more I look at this, the more it seems weird to me. Even though a package is an example of the relationship, it is not an adequate name for the relationship.
    – GMB
    Commented May 29, 2014 at 18:02

Containerized (see 2nd definition below)

From Merriam-Webster Online:

Main Entry: con·tain·er·ize Pronunciation: \kən-ˈtā-nə-ˌrīz, -nər-ˌīz\ Function: verb Inflected Form(s): con·tain·er·ized; con·tain·er·iz·ing Date: 1956 transitive verb 1 : to ship by containerization 2 : to pack in containers

If the oranges have been packed into a container, then the oranges have been containerized.

Original form: The box contains oranges, and hence they have a [containerized] relationship.


Container. An adjacency is something that is adjacent. A container is something that contains. X is an adjacency of Y if it is adjacent to Y. X is a container of Y if it contains Y.

  • No doubt that the box is a container of oranges if it contains oranges, but the oranges are not a container of the box. What is asked for is a relationship term that describes both the relationship of the box to the oranges and the oranges to the box in the same X is adjacent to Y means that Y is adjacent to X. Now I've written that it's only just dawned on me that if the oranges were outside the box then their relationship would be 'adjacent' so maybe it's a word like 'adjacent' we're looking for.
    – Frank
    Commented May 29, 2014 at 2:56
  • @Frank Of course that is the case. Adjacency is commutative. Containment is not (in general). The OP chose the relation, not I.
    – Drew
    Commented May 29, 2014 at 13:23
  • Indeed but the OP also offered this Note that the word may not necessarily be based on "contains", perhaps on a synonym. which is why I'm not wholly convinced any amount of bending contain into such a relationship will ever be correct.
    – Frank
    Commented May 29, 2014 at 13:27
  • @Frank: Any synonym of contains will also need to be not (necessarily) commutative. It's in the nature of the relation, regardless of what name you call it.
    – Drew
    Commented May 29, 2014 at 14:00
  • Then perhaps you could have a go at second part of the bounty information by providing a half-decent reason for No, there isn't one [a word for the relationship that is] because so far your reasoning is the closest to explaining why there isn't (and possibly can't be) a single word for the relationship.
    – Frank
    Commented May 29, 2014 at 14:05

The problem with finding a term to describe what the OP calls ‘a "contains" relation’ is a reflection of the fact that in many situations, English speakers don’t seem to have felt the need to devise abstract categorizations of this sort; or if they have, they are often restricted to particular domains, such as mathematics.

To take one notable example, there doesn’t even seem to be a general abstract term to describe the relationship between siblings, at least in dictionaries: the metadictionary Onelook.com returns no hits for plausible terms like siblingdom, siblingry or siblingship. When the need for a similar term does arise, it is usually spelled out in specifics: brother-sister relationship, sister-sister relationship.

I think one of the reasons for the lack of a general term for a container-contained object relationship is that in everyday situations it is rarely necessary to describe such a relationship in abstract terms. Usually, the context requires a much more explicit description:

“Please replace the cutlery in the drawer after use”

“The cat is in the box again!”

“The hold of the ferry accommodates up to 25 buses or 45 passenger cars”.

The lack of mutuality between the containing object and the object contained presents a further difficulty when one attempts to encapsulate the relationship using a single term. The best I can come up with is inclusion relationship (the same suggestion as that proposed by GMB and hauron).


A 'bulk' relationship: The box contains oranges, and hence they have a bulked relationship.

Break Bulk : To unload and distribute a portion or all of the contents of a rail car, container, or trailer. - Loose, non-containerized cargo. -Glossary of shipping terms (U.S. Dept. of Transportation, Maritime Administration, [1999])


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