Which English word or phrase can be used to express consisely that

a particular thing or occurrence can be seen as an example or instance of a general concept, for which now there is a term,

but at the time this thing existed or the occurrence took place the term was not yet in use or that general concept was not yet recognized


A possible example:

According to Wikipedia, Plato was a feminist ______.”

The idea would be to express that the stated views of Plato make him a feminist (at least according to Wikipedia), but that of course neither he nor his contemporaries considered him as such, simply because the concept was introduced much later (namely by Charles Fourier in 1837).

What comes in my mind is something like “before the fact” or “before the term”, but dictionary sites do not support this use. Is there some other phrase?

  • Can you find a less controversial (solely from a linguistics point of view!) example? Genetic engineering, also called genetic modification, is the direct manipulation of an organism's genome using biotechnology. [Wikipedia] eg 'Red sky at night' / weather fronts. Feb 7, 2015 at 17:12
  • @EdwinAshworth I'm puzzled to know what it has to do with 'red sky at night' and weather fronts?
    – WS2
    Feb 7, 2015 at 17:21
  • Is selective breeding the same thing as genetic engineering?
    – WS2
    Feb 7, 2015 at 17:22
  • According to strict / most definitions, it's not a hyponym. Feb 7, 2015 at 17:23
  • 1
    This becomes 'ahead of its/his time'. Feb 7, 2015 at 17:50

6 Answers 6


I don't know of an English term, but the French phrase avant la lettre (literally ‘before the letter’) is used in exactly this sense.

In fact, the example given at Wiktionary is very close to your example:

Suffragettes were feminists avant la lettre. — Suffragettes were feminists before the word "feminist" existed.

A very recent use:

In this context Wilde must be viewed not only as an author and a playwright, but a critic who puts his own artistic theories into practice in his literary work. As far as I know, the idea of Wilde as, in some ways, a postmodernist avant la letter is a way of reading Wilde that has not been examined in Wildean scholarship.
— Kees de Vries, ‘Intertextuality and Intermediality in Oscar Wilde’s Salome or: How Oscar Wilde Became a Postmodernist’, in Michael Y. Bennet, ed., Refiguring Oscar Wilde’s Salome, 2011.

  • Thank you, "avant la lettre" is what I had in the back of my mind without being able to access it. Now, since I need this term for a technical text in the sciences, is there a version of this that sounds less lit-crit? Not that there's something wrong with that, I would just sound odd in the context.
    – A. Donda
    Feb 7, 2015 at 17:54
  • But I guess this boils down to asking whether there's an English term, which you said you don't know.
    – A. Donda
    Feb 7, 2015 at 18:00
  • If it is a loan phrase, it is English already. [and +1]
    – ermanen
    Feb 7, 2015 at 18:19
  • @A.Donda Will this text make you feel better about using it in a non-LitCrit context? Feb 7, 2015 at 18:56
  • Interesting. Yes, it it kind-of does. Let's see whether my coauthors will let it through though.
    – A. Donda
    Feb 7, 2015 at 19:37

How about the prefix "proto-"? "

According to Wikipedia, Plato was a proto-feminist

  • Thanks! But same as with Mathieu's answer: The factual part is perfectly expressed by "proto-", but it doesn't really imply the aspect that one is applying a term despite of that it is anachronistic to do so.
    – A. Donda
    Feb 7, 2015 at 18:05
  • Though slightly more so... :-)
    – A. Donda
    Feb 7, 2015 at 18:08

How about pioneer, innovator, or precursor? (Or synonyms thereof.) Or an early example in or an early form of?

So something like:

  • “The age-old practice of selective breeding could be considered a precursor to genetic engineering.” or "[...] could be considered an early form of genetic engineering.”
  • “According to Wikipedia, Plato was a pioneer in feminism.”
  • Thanks! The factual part is perfectly expressed in these formulations, but they don't really imply the aspect that one is applying a term despite of that it is anachronistic to do so.
    – A. Donda
    Feb 7, 2015 at 17:58
  • 1
    Then I'd go with @StoneyB's avant la lettre. Or perhaps use the anachronistic you've been using in your comments: According to Wikipedia, Plato was an anachronistic feminist, although that leaves the reader to figure out whether Plato precedes the rest of feminism or comes after it. And I agree with you--pioneering (or avant-garde), although similar, isn't quite the same concept as as avant la lettre. The latter seems to me to express that some time passes between Plato's feminist thought/expression and the "real" beginning of feminist thought (however that's defined).
    – Mathieu K.
    Feb 7, 2015 at 19:25

The term an observation in need of an explanation is not uncommon, though it is hardly snappy. Neither is it restricted to observations made in the past and subsequently explained by theory, nor indeed to observations made in the past as opposed to the present.

You'd need 'It was ...' or 'It profited from ...'.

If you want to stress the fact that no one had realised that having an overarching theory might be preferable, more art than science might be more to your liking.

  • Thanks, but my question is not about a possible explanation, but simply about a concept (or label, ...) that might have been applied if it had already existed.
    – A. Donda
    Feb 7, 2015 at 17:27

NASCENT adjective

(especially of a process or organization) just coming into existence and beginning to display signs of future potential. "the nascent space industry"

synonyms: just beginning, budding, developing, growing, embryonic, incipient, young, fledgling, evolving, emergent, dawning, burgeoning



According to Wikipedia, Plato was an ur-feminist

From OED:

ur- (prefix) denoting ‘primitive, original, earliest,’ as ur-Hamlet, ur-origin, ur-stock, etc.
See also urheimat, urschleim, ursprache, urtext

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