The title pretty much says it all. I'm just looking for a word to use to describe an agent coming ever-so-slightly close to reaching a goal without actually doing so.

The best I've been able to do on my own is co-opt and brutalize "asymptote" for my specific purpose. Can anyone out there do better?

Also, I'd be somewhat okay with borrowing a foreign word for this.

EDIT: Maybe it'd be useful to give some more context. I'm investigating the relationship between noumena, being, and knowing. I've been using contrivances such as "asymptoid", "symptic", and "sympticate" to some success, but I find myself in constant need to express the condition of being "close but no cigar".

Based on a response from Phrase for something that is always out or reach/you almost have but never can get I think I may have settled upon calling such a condition "iron" (as opposed to "brass", which would describe success). This works well for my purpose, as metallurgy sufficiently distant from the space I'm working in, plus it leaves open the opportunity to add similar metaphors.

  • 1
    Have you ever read the myth of Tantalus? If not, you might want to look up the etymology and synonyms of tantalizing...
    – Dan Bron
    Nov 19, 2014 at 1:21
  • That may end up being useful for me, though I'm trying to avoid the notion of unobtainability. Nov 19, 2014 at 1:28
  • 1
    You're trying to avoid the notion of "unobtainability", but are considering "asymptote"?
    – Dan Bron
    Nov 19, 2014 at 1:29
  • That's why I'm here; the word doesn't fit. Nov 19, 2014 at 1:30
  • Often there isn't a ready word to match such a specific requirement. This means you have to do some extra work to create context which will help the reader understand what you mean by the word you do choose. Metaphor is useful. And Tantalus was a damned good pointer. If it doesn't quite match, you could shift it yourself.
    – itsbruce
    Nov 19, 2014 at 2:04

4 Answers 4


I'd properly use:


a very small space or distance:
We escaped an accident by a hairsbreadth.
extremely narrow or close.


  • Typo alert: probably
    – Mari-Lou A
    Nov 19, 2014 at 8:34
  • This seems about as close as I can expect. Thanks! Nov 19, 2014 at 11:53

How about "approach" or "verge on"? French has two lovely verbs for this: "frôler" and "effleurer"

  • Since the OP has expressedly said foreign words are welcome. Could you please explain the full meanings of these French terms, and maybe tips on their pronunciations?
    – Mari-Lou A
    Nov 19, 2014 at 6:52
  • I'd upvote you if I could; I love being exposed to new words. Sorry for lack of rep. Nov 19, 2014 at 12:04

The clause

  • P barely fail to touch X (P and X are indefinite agent and patient)

is multiply ambiguous and therefore confusing.
This is predicted by the fact that it contains both a quantifier (barely) and a negative (fail).

Potential Q-Neg Ambiguity is one aspect of the problem.
But wait; there's more. Barely, it turns out, is itself ambiguous. Big time.

From an article by Haj Ross:

When we start looking at how speakers of "the same dialect" can vary among themselves, we may find our breath taken away. This happened to me in connection with apparently harmless sentences like (1).

(1) We have barely $500 in the bank.

At issue here is not the grammaticality of (1) -– I believe that most speakers of American find it grammatical. Rather, let us ask a semantic question: What does it mean? I will ask the reader to answer the same question I asked the audience at the oral version of this chapter, a question that I have been asking groups of speakers since about 1965 – by now probably around 3,000 in all.

Does (1) mean (2a), (2b), or (2c)?

(2a). We have just over $500 in the bank – say $501, $502, $503 ...
(2b) We have just under $500 in the bank – almost $500, not quite $500, say $498 or $499.
(2c) We have around, close to, $500 in the bank – say between $495 and $505.

By now, the range of responses that reach me when I ask this question has settled into the following rough predictability: for most audiences,
- around 40-45% will prefer (2a) as the meaning for (1);
- 50-55% will prefer (2b), and
- usually around 5-10% will go for (2c).

Furthermore, none of the people I have asked over the years has had any idea that there was any range of variation at all. If you are a (2a) speaker, as I am, you will probably regard the claim that there are (2b) and (2c) speakers with not a little incredulity – how could anyone say (1) and mean (2b)? The converse is true for (2b) or (2c) speakers. For some reason, this seems to be an area of variation which we all remain unaware of.

  • That's all academically interesting of course—it just seems inapplicable to the discussion at hand. Your example attempts to establish quantity, whereas I'm establishing a quality. Sure, the phrase "barely $500" is variously used to mean "just shy", "just over", and "close to", but no such ambiguity exists in the phrase "barely fail". Case in point: I run a lot of races, and I've never heard anyone argue against characterizing being beaten by a nose as "barely losing" except to say that "if you aren't first, you're last" (or something to that effect), which isn't exactly ordinary usage. Nov 19, 2014 at 18:43
  • 1
    But if you "barely fail", do you in fact fail, or do you catch hold? Failing is already negative, so if one has a negative sense of "barely", there's a double negative sense available. That's why it's a very bad turn of phrase, because it's not clear. If you want to be mysterious and distracting, on the other hand, it's about ideal. Nov 19, 2014 at 18:49
  • You fail. Barely just describes the extent to which you do so. There's no double negativity involved. Would you have the same gripes about the phrase "nearly succeed"? I've never known anyone for whom these phrases aren't crystal clear. I feel like you're either misunderstanding or being disingenuous. Nov 19, 2014 at 21:14
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    @user3019273: has it occurred to you that you may very well be exemplifying exactly what is described in the last paragraph of the quoted text? Although I am admittedly not (your average) native speaker, I felt uncomfortable assigning an unambiguous definite meaning to “barely fail”. Although admittedly this answer does not actually answer your exact question, it raises, I think, a valid concern over the wording of it.
    – oerkelens
    Nov 19, 2014 at 23:23
  • 1
    And I feel like you aren't paying attention to data; not everyone is as certain as you are that you're correct. Nov 19, 2014 at 23:24

Grazed. Technically it implies a very light touch but in many cases I think that's ambiguous.

Skimmed, maybe. In some contexts it may not imply any actual contact.

Both of these work best with actual physical proximity, and may not lend themselves to metaphorical or abstract use. And both imply movement.

Stopped short, or fell short, may work better.

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