In Oxford Dictionary of English I looked up the word "invertebrate" and I only saw its zoological meaning:

An animal lacking a backbone, such as an arthropod, mollusc, annelid, coelenterate, etc. The invertebrates constitute an artificial division of the animal kingdom, comprising 95 per cent of animal species and about thirty different phyla.
Denoting an invertebrate or relating to the invertebrates as a group.

But elsewhere I have seen sentences like this:

They don't like him because he is invertebrate.

where "invertebrate" is said to mean "weak-minded".

And this:

Seeing her baby, she became invertebrate instantly.

where it is said to mean "softened".

So, does "invertebrate" really have these figurative meanings? And if so, is it universally accepted or just used in informal occasions?

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    Have you really not come across figurative uses of spineless? Commented Jun 4, 2015 at 9:00
  • @TimLymington No. I'm not a speaker.
    – Vim
    Commented Jun 4, 2015 at 9:01
  • @TimLymington I do see figurative meaning of "spineless" in ODE but for "invertebrate" there is only zoological meaning, although they seem to mean the same thing.
    – Vim
    Commented Jun 4, 2015 at 9:03
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    R H K Webster's gives: invertebrate : 2. without strength of character. Commented Jun 4, 2015 at 9:17
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    In English, having a "spine" refers, figuratively, to being able to stand up for ones principles -- to stand against the "flow" of events when one feels events are flowing the wrong way. Saying that someone is "invertebrate" is obviously a backhand way of saying they have no will of their own.
    – Hot Licks
    Commented Jun 9, 2015 at 12:19

2 Answers 2


The only meanings of "invertebrate" in standard English are the Biological ones you cite from ODE in your question. Less formally, the word is also used to refer to people with undesirable character traits. If one calls a person an invertebrate, whether using that word, or by using one of the names of animals within that biological category (jellyfish, cockroach, slug, &c), one is suggesting that the person lacks strength.

The use of "invertebrate" to mean softened, or to mean "weak minded" that you cite suggest to me that the ones using the word in those ways were not familiar with the use of that word in English perhaps using a cross lexicon which provides definitions of English words in another language. I can easily imagine "invertebrate" in such a dictionary being used as a definition of a foreign language equipvalent of "spineless".

  • But Webster's (qv) gives the sense mentioned. Unflagged for register. Commented Jun 4, 2015 at 9:18
  • @EdwinAshworth In ODE, however, there is only the zoological meaning.
    – Vim
    Commented Jun 4, 2015 at 11:43
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    @Vim dictionaries don't list every possible metaphorical meaning because they are infinite. Also, in some sense, metaphorical usages are not definitive (though they often become so).
    – Mitch
    Commented Jun 4, 2015 at 11:59
  • @Mitch Well.. I have no reason to disagree. Perhaps that's what makes a foreign language so hard to learn 😲
    – Vim
    Commented Jun 4, 2015 at 12:07
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    Applying the 'It's not a word because it's not in the dictionary' mantra, according to Webster's Dictionary of the English Language: Handy School and Office Edition (HSOE), 'deep' is not a word. Neither are 'whiskers', 'whiskey', 'whisper', 'white', 'wide', 'widow', 'wield', 'wife', 'wig', 'wigwam' and 'wild' (and that's just between 'whirlpool' and 'wide-eyed'). [ Christopher McManus ] Commented Jun 4, 2015 at 13:06

The fact that you've seen it used tells me it has a figurative meaning :P Collins lists it in American English but not British English (link).

I think spineless is more common. But people will understand what you mean, probably by analogy to 'spineless'.

  • Can you post a link to your Collins reference, please? I can't track it down. Commented Jun 4, 2015 at 9:20
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    I hope everybody realizes that, biologically and etymologically, invertebrates have no backbones. So "invertebrate" means "having no backbone", where backbone is used figuratively to mean strength, courage, willpower. Commented Jun 4, 2015 at 15:18

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