The descriptor is the term that describes something. Is there a word for that which is being described?

Many English words exist that have this "affected-affector" relationship. For example, it exists in mathematics, specifically in regards to arithmetic in the following forms:

  • In summation, the result is called the sum, whilst the numbers being added are called the addends.
  • In substraction, the result is called the difference, whilst the numbers being subtracted are called the minuend and subtrahend.
  • In multiplication, the result is called the product, whilst the numbers being multipled are called the multiplier and multiplicand
  • In division, the result is called the quotient, whilst the numbers being divided are called the dividend and divisor.

(Maths source here.)

¹ Or, collectively, just factors.

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    I would suggest object, subject or term.
    – CJ Dennis
    Commented Jul 6, 2015 at 9:45
  • To abstract for my purposes. I'm referring to something being described, not referred to, directed to, or otherwise affected. I actually found the term I was looking for. See my post below. Commented Jul 6, 2015 at 17:55
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    describee Wiktionary
    – Jimmy
    Commented Jul 6, 2015 at 20:19
  • @Jimmy: No, the "describee" is the person to whom you're describing something, not the thing itself that you are describing. See here. Commented Jul 8, 2015 at 21:53

7 Answers 7


I did some more research actually and I found exactly what I was looking for! What I did was I looked up descriptor in the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) and looked in the "nearby words" section. Turns out that a word for it was used as early as 1933: descriptum. See clickable screenshot below.

OED Screenshot

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    How does 'a sentence element that has the function of numeration' correspond to your request for 'a word for that which is being described'? And how many people looking at ELU are going to be helped by this very jargonistic terminology? Commented Jul 5, 2015 at 14:19
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    Indeed @Centaurus has a point in his answer. . . The goal of communication is for people to fathom what you're saying. If they won't, then this whole word search isn't worth anything.
    – M.A.R.
    Commented Jul 5, 2015 at 19:27
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    It makes complete sense to me. I said before: I'm not doing this for you all. I'm doing this for me. If the word seems too "jargonistic" for anyone but me, that's hardly my problem since this question was addressed for my purposes. Commented Jul 6, 2015 at 0:51
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    I think this is an example of good jargon. I'm not familiar with any formal rules or standing patterns between -or and -um suffixes, but I would hazard that I and many English speakers would infer the meaning of descritum correctly, or close enough. A pattern I think more English speakers might follow more easily would be describer/describee or descriptor/descriptee, but neither of those are 'actually' words. But if you add them to wiktionary, I think it would count ;-)
    – Patrick M
    Commented Jul 6, 2015 at 19:19
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    @CJDennis: As Patrick_M pointed out, it's actually a word most people familiar with English would likely understand. Even if they weren't 100% sure, they could probably make a reasonable assumption based on the root and the context. Commented Jul 8, 2015 at 21:58

The referent.

referent n.

A person or thing to which a linguistic expression refers.

American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fifth Edition.

referent n

  1. the object or idea to which a word or phrase refers.

Collins English Dictionary

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    Dang, this community is fast! Commented Jul 5, 2015 at 13:30
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    However, now that I look at the Wikipedia article on the word, I'm not so sure about the relative applicability of this word. Although I'm sure referent is valid for what I'm asking since you cannot describe something without referring to it, you can also refer to something without necessarily describing it in the conventional sense. Commented Jul 5, 2015 at 13:35
  • Note the differences in the linguistics senses for descriptor given by ODO (Linguistics: A word or expression used to describe or identify something) and Dictionary.com (a significant word or phrase used to categorize or describe text or other material). In linguistics, the usual sense of 'referent' is 'the actual piece of carved and assembled wood etc being referred to when I write "table" '. Commented Jul 5, 2015 at 14:10
  • Okay? I don't understand your point. My point was that I'm not looking for a word for the object in a subject-object relationship, but rather a word for the object in a descriptor-descriptum (see below) relationship. Commented Jul 5, 2015 at 14:15

Borrowing from formal grammar, you may be interested in using subject. Quoting from Capital Community College Foundation:

The subject of a sentence is the person, place, thing, or idea that is doing or being something.

For an example, consider:

That is a really pretty painting. It is simply sublime.

The painting is the subject of the sentences; it is the thing being described by the speaker. In the phrasing of the quoted source, the painting is being pretty and sublime.

Another term that could apply is object. In contrast to the subject of a sentence, the object is the recipient. Formal English grammar further breaks it down into direct objects

Art critics praised the painting as very pretty.

* Subject: art critics
* Direct Object: the painting
* Object Complement: as very pretty

and indirect objects

The art critics said "truly sublime" as they described the painting.

* Subject: The art critics
* Direct Object: "truly sublime" - an adjectival phrase, quoted, turning it into a noun.
* Linking verb: as they described
* Indirect object: the painting

Summarizing the differences (again quoting from CCCF)

A direct object is the receiver of action within a sentence.
The indirect object identifies to or for whom or what the action of the verb is performed.

In both cases, the definition of object applies to your question.

object [n. ob-jikt, -jekt; v. uh b-jekt]
2. a thing, person, or matter to which thought or action is directed:
an object of medical investigation.

Source: dictionary.com

As Jim Reynolds points out in the comment, these words are fairly broad. They are hypernyms of your specific example. It seems that the askers own find of "Descriptum" is the most accurate, most specific word. Nevertheless, subject and object remain well understood parts of speech. The sentence "This painting is the subject/object of the description in question." is perfectly understandable. Whether subject or object is more correct depends on the grammatical voice; in other words, the phrasing of the description itself.

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    What is a word for a thing that is being changed? Answer: a tire. The above answer uses the same logic. A subject is often described in a sentence, but just because it can be or is often described in a sentence, does not make it a thing that is described. -1 Commented Jul 6, 2015 at 16:59
  • I think your example is a non-sequitur. For starters, "the tire was changed" and "I changed the tire" are a descriptions of the tire. But more broadly, nearly every word in the English language has multiple meanings, varying in part-of-speech, nuance, scope, and connotation. Subject and object are hypernyms of "thing that is described", and getting a more exact term requires getting more obscure. Every sentence is a description; from a certain point of view, every word is a description, a conceptualization in the human brain of a real or imagined thing, event or state of being.
    – Patrick M
    Commented Jul 6, 2015 at 19:14
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    In other words, your logic applies equally to the referent answer; just because something is referred to does not make it a thing that is described. I think they're both valid answers, albeit less specific than descriptum. @JimReynolds
    – Patrick M
    Commented Jul 6, 2015 at 19:38
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    Excellent comment, @PatrickM!! :D I really enjoyed your analysis! Commented Jul 8, 2015 at 21:56

The descriptor and the described thing?

I can't think of a specific word which could be used in any context, but I can suggest:

  • The visual conception of what was described.
  • The delineated object.
  • The pictured person.

Anyways, I would prefer saying "the described thing, person, object, place, etc." to using a word most people never heard.

  • With the usual meaning of the "-er" suffix, "the describer" means "the person who describes a thing", not "the thing that is described". Compare with writer, reader, speaker, eater, runner, and many other common words.
    – alephzero
    Commented Jul 5, 2015 at 16:56
  • @alephzero I obviously know that. I was just repeating the opening sentence in the OP. It seems to have been edited shortly after and the word "describer" was removed. That's it.
    – Centaurus
    Commented Jul 5, 2015 at 18:05

Although Edwin's and Patrick's answers are ideal for the general case, for the specific case of functions such as the ones being listed one can also use argument:

Argument: (Mathematics) an independent variable associated with a function and determining the value of the function. For example, in the expression y = F ( x1, x2 ), the arguments of the function F are x 1 and x 2, and the value is y.

(Definition 3.)

  • I was only using the maths terms as an example. I'm looking for a non-mathematical word. Commented Jul 6, 2015 at 0:57

I wonder if 'element' does the trick.

When used appropriately 'el-e-ment' can convey to another a comprehension of the 'thing' being described as well as the context in which that 'thing' is embedded.

El-e-ment is variously defined as follows:-

"an essential or characteristic part of something abstract"

"a small but significant presence of a feeling or abstract quality"

Yet the word generally infer

Element is effective when describing individual/singular objects/events, group/complex things or dynamics, it works when describing observations or contemplation of physical and metaphysical events/phenomena, it is used in mathematics, psychology [i.e., the fundamental principles of Gestalt] and even the spiritual. See below for some examples.

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Referenced from:- Oxford Dictionary of English Copyright © 2010, 2013 by Oxford University Press

The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, 4th edition Copyright © 2010 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. Published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company

Roget's II The New Thesaurus Copyright © 2010 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. Published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company

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    No, because the word element is typically used in this sense as meaning being a component of a larger system. Personally, I think "descriptum" (see my answer above) is still the most optimum option. Commented Jul 8, 2015 at 22:01

Speaking of arithmetic, the term addend comes about as a shortening of addendum, the gerund form of addere.

By a similar construction, describere has the gerund form describendum, which leads to the obvious shortening, describend.

(@op's preferred descriptum is the perfect participle form.)

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