I've had a long discussion with people on the differences between recognizing a face in a crowd (I know I've seen that person before) and identifying the person you see (That's the waitress from the diner).

Is there a short phrase for those faces (or other objects) that you recognize but do not identify? For example, when watching a TV show I frequently know I've seen an actor/actress before but not where and certainly with no knowledge of their name.

Unidentified covers those I do not recognize as well as those I do. Familiar faces works the other way in that it would also cover those I can name, but it is much closer to the sort of phrase I am looking for.

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    Not for the images; but there is for the terms we use to refer to them anyway. We call them Nonce Phrases, things like Whatsername, thingamajig, whosis, doohickey, and whatchamacallit, which indicate recognition but lack of recall. Commented May 29, 2014 at 22:28
  • "can't put a name to the face" is a common expression used in that situation. But not a phrase for the phenomenon. Commented May 29, 2014 at 22:34

4 Answers 4


How about familiar, "possibly known but imperfectly remembered"? As in, "that actor looks familiar!"

Edit: this has a different meaning than the phrase "familiar faces." For example, if someone walked up to me in a crowd and said, "You're a familiar face!" I would expect that person to know me well, at least relative to other people in the crowd. On the other hand, if the same person said, "You look familiar," I would probably try to help him figure out whether he actually knows me or not.

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    This was already given in the question. Commented May 29, 2014 at 22:58
  • @MartinSmith "Familiar faces" was given, but that has a different connotation than "looks familiar," no? Commented May 29, 2014 at 23:00
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    Hmmm, true. Retracted the -1 but not convinced enough to +1 Commented May 29, 2014 at 23:05
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    look familiar, sound familiar, smell familiar...
    – ermanen
    Commented May 29, 2014 at 23:53

How about the phrase ring a bell?

ring a bell: to seem at least vaguely familiar: His face rings a bell

ring a bell: to cause for someone to remember something or for it to seem familiar; to seem familiar: I never met John Franklin, but his name rings a bell; Whenever I see a bee, it rings a bell. I remember when I was stung by one

  • "have a familiar ring (to it)" also.
    – ermanen
    Commented May 29, 2014 at 23:49
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    Having a familiar ring to it is said of something audible- a song, a name, etc. But one would not say his face has a familiar ring to it
    – Jim
    Commented May 30, 2014 at 0:10
  • @Jim: The question can be applied to the things other than face also and I'm just helping with his answer because it is related. Title of the question is general.
    – ermanen
    Commented May 30, 2014 at 2:14

on the tip of one's tongue is an expression used in this case:

Fig. [of a thought or idea] about to be said or almost remembered.

(*Typically: be ~; have something ~.) I have his name right on the tip of my tongue. I'll think of it in a second. John had the answer on the tip of his tongue, but Anne said it first.


"Can't put my finger on it" may be used in this context.

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