I'm looking for a term to describe someone who literally has zero knowledge of a topic. Initially I thought of using something like green field but that doesn't really describe the person, it really describes a situation.

The context of this is for providing training.

  • {what goes here?}
  • Beginner
  • Intermediate
  • Expert
  • 6
    Could you add some context? In a game, it would be Newbie or Newb. In a case where this describes the ability to perform a function, Trainee might be appropriate. Universally, though, Novice is IMO the best. – ZX9 Jul 29 '15 at 18:09
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    If this is any help, teaching English as a foreign language is usually divided in the following levels: 1) Beginner 2) Elementary (this implies that the learner knows numbers, letters, colours, and the subject pronouns) 3) pre-intermediate 4) Intermediate 5) upper-intermediate 6) Advanced. In other words, in the world of EFL, a beginner is someone who has not mastered even the most basic notions, does not even know the difference between "I" and "you"., cannot count 1 to10, etc. – Mari-Lou A Jul 29 '15 at 19:20
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    Manager? Expert on cable TV news show? – Hot Licks Jul 29 '15 at 20:51
  • 2
    How about clueless – hyperkittie Jul 30 '15 at 13:56
  • 7
    Donald Trump... – Pete Becker Jul 31 '15 at 15:01

22 Answers 22

up vote 60 down vote accepted

If you're looking for an informal word, consider newcomer. Merriam-Webster has:

newcomer(n): a person who has recently arrived somewhere or who has recently started a new activity

If you want something a little more formal and with perhaps a religious flavour, you can use neophyte:

neophyte(n): a person who has just started learning or doing something

  • I like these two examples as well - I'm going to spend some time researching them vs novice to get a good understanding of which is more synonymous while also not conveying a negative connotation. Thanks! – PW Kad Jul 29 '15 at 18:03
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    @PWKad, researching and comparing definitions is all well and good, but I would argue that the students' common perception of the word is even more important. You may want to consider running your short list by a group of students to see what kind of feedback you receive. Good luck! – Michael_B Jul 29 '15 at 20:29
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    OED on neophyte etymology: Fr. néophyte († neofite, 14th c.), ad. eccl. L. neophytus, ad. Gr. νεόφυτος (1 Tim. iii. 6), lit. ‘newly planted’, f. νέος neo- + φυτόν plant, φυτεύειν to plant. – tchrist Jul 29 '15 at 23:31
  • Man I was waiting until the end of the day to choose which answer was more up-voted but both are neck and neck... I'm trying to choose based on what I'll actually use and do that based on what was more voted but it keeps changing! – PW Kad Jul 31 '15 at 3:55
  • wow, accept based on the merit of the answer, not just other people's upvotes! neither of the top 2 are comprehensive. a much lower voted answer further down is much, much better argued. – underscore_d Jul 31 '15 at 17:58

For a brand new beginning-beginner, I would use the term "novice".

  • Very nice I don't know why I was thinking that may be more synonymous with beginner but it looks like that was my interpretation as definitions seem to support this. – PW Kad Jul 29 '15 at 18:04
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    I'd be interested to see a definition stating that being a novice is different to being a beginner. These don't support it: Free Dic. Dict.Com MW Longman – Julie Carter Jul 29 '15 at 18:19
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    I agree with @JulieCarter. Take a look at this answer on Quora, as well as any dictionary definition. Novice and beginner are most often synonyms, and in some cases a novice is actually seen as more experienced than a beginner. The two terms are not distinct enough to use without additional explanation. Also, VoodooBettie, it would be nice to see a definition -- in addition to some reasoning and citations -- incorporated into your answer. – Jake Regier Jul 29 '15 at 18:42
  • +1 It would be even better if you gave a dictionary definition and a link to the dictionary. – bib Jul 29 '15 at 19:31
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    See Michael_B's answer for why the word often requires the term, complete. – Mazura Jul 30 '15 at 0:24

In the context you provide – a training course – I would go with this:

  • Uninformed
  • Beginner
  • Intermediate
  • Expert

These are students and teachers who will read this. Many of the terms provided in other answers (e.g., "ignorant", "virgin") may meet the requirement for the definition, but are inappropriate in terms of context.

"Uninformed", in this particular context, strikes me as non-judgmental.

"Newcomer" is also very good (but already provided by @Sawbones).


Also, just fyi...

Many organizations actually use "Beginner" for the level where a person has no knowledge at all about the topic.

Then comes "Basic" or "Novice".

So it's common to see this:

  • Beginner
  • Novice (or Basic)
  • Intermediate
  • Expert (or Advanced)

You can find plenty of examples online. In my quick review, the one thing they all had in common was "Beginner" came first (and was synonymous with "uninformed", "newcomer", "entry level", etc).

In construction type jobs, people who are new to the profession are called

greenhorns

In academia, they're known as

freshmen

In the police force, they are called

rookies

Other words worth mentioning are:

  • naif
  • green
  • amateur
  • inexperienced
  • ignorant
  • I've heard "greenhorn" as an archaic derogatory term for "immigrant" as well – Sawbones Jul 29 '15 at 23:36
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    and on forums, Online Games and among 14 year olds circa 2006, I believe they're known as n00bs – Some_Guy Jul 30 '15 at 9:09
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    Very US-centric, if you're looking at British English the terms would be (mostly) understood, but wouldn't be commonly used – Matt Allwood Jul 31 '15 at 12:50
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    These terms all refer to someone who has SOME knowledge, but are just relatively new to the profession. Not sure any of them would apply to someone with ZERO knowledge, like on Day 1. – Omegacron Jul 31 '15 at 14:39
  • In my experience, a freshman in academia is just the term for a first-year student in college. I've never noticed any implication in this term that they should be particularly uninformed about academic matters. – Sverre Aug 2 '15 at 13:10

A slew of people said "novice" at about the same time - that would probably be my first choice for a safe but well understood term.

But, "initiate" (also with a religious or cultural undertone) would be well enough understood by most people.

From another age, probably too light hearted for business use but OK for eg a conference course description is tyro which actually suits your meaning very well.

If a touch of humor is acceptable, then a genuine term, which many people may not have met, but whose meaning will be clear - both due to its position on the list and it's obvious enough derivation is abecedarian Agh! - I now see that that has been suggested - it's still a good word - just not as original as I'd thought.

"entry level" does not seem to have been suggested - a term that is in very common use in exactly this context.

  • Entry level
  • Beginner
  • Intermediate
  • Expert
  • 1
    Yes, entry-level successfully conveys "absolute bottom rung". Although, higher-ranking individuals in your organization (who might be complete beginners at this particular task) might balk at it, as it can imply "newly hired". – Sawbones Jul 30 '15 at 13:24

A useful word I haven't seen mentioned yet is layman, someone who has no or little knowledge of a particular subject.

One might say "in layman's terms" before explaining something technical to someone with no specialist knowledge of that area.

The uninitiated is a good non-judgemental term.

"Newbie". You could even use slang and shorten it to the new, hip term "noob"

  • +1, Newbie is good, but 'noob' is often used as an insult, so be careful with that one. – DCShannon Oct 8 '15 at 1:14

A lot of answers are focusing on having no experience in a subject. But if you need a word describing having no knowledge in a subject, I'd go with ignorant.

  • That's what it means all right. – T.E.D. Jul 29 '15 at 19:08
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    While ignorant means what was asked, it doesn't fit in the context provided. – GreenAsJade Jul 30 '15 at 2:25
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    ignorant also has a derogatory flavour to it, may need care depending on context – Matt Allwood Jul 31 '15 at 12:51

The term virgin is often used

A person who is inexperienced in a given activity or field: "all these [factors] kept me a gun virgin well into midlife" (Michael DiLeo).

American Heritage

The term is often preceded by an adjectival noun describing the area of naiveté.

Supplement

As has been noted in some comments, virgin has a long history of a sexual connotation, and many would consider it informal or slang. Its first usage in a non-sexual context was probably considered metaphoric, but it seems to have become a fairly standard, albeit only appropriate for certain circumstances.

It also tends to be used to describe a person about to venture into a new arena, rather than someone who is stubbornly avoidant of initiation into the mysteries to be found in the love of a new range of experiences (and all the attendant Shades of Grey)!

  • I thought of that but I was worried about the connotation that goes along with it, I'll definitely keep this in mind though. – PW Kad Jul 29 '15 at 18:33
  • This meaning is more slang. Novice is the right term as given in another answer. – ErikE Jul 29 '15 at 18:43
  • I'm not a fan of unnecessarily using terms with sexual connotations. – T.E.D. Jul 29 '15 at 19:08
  • @ErikE I agree that novice is a fine answer and voted it up. Depending on context, it may best suit the questioner. But English is a rich language with many terms that are near synonyms which have shades of meaning. Virgin has connotations that may not make it right for this user (and may even offend some). But it may be right for someone else with a similar question. There is rarely one right term. – bib Jul 29 '15 at 19:21
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    Given the question, "_____, Beginner, Intermediate, Expert" I would still maintain that virgin is the wrong term. I didn't say it's wrong at all times, I just felt that your brief answer did not go into the context surrounding skillful usage of virgin and so my comment was an attempt to repair that a bit. Feel free to elaborate on when virgin would be the best word to use and when novice would, and I'll vote you up. – ErikE Jul 29 '15 at 21:10

Ignoramus would fit nicely at the top of your list

Oxford:

An ignorant or stupid person.

I'm a complete ignoramus when it comes to Artinian rings of Krull dimension zero.

In the context of learning, admitting total ignorance is not a bad thing, it's an indicator of where to start study.

  • +1 – This was the word that immediately came to my mind when I saw the question title. (Other words might be better, certainly, but this was the first I personally thought of.) – Alexis King Jul 31 '15 at 3:45

You could use an abecedarian:

: one learning the rudiments of something (as the alphabet)
Merriam-Webster


Since there is some curiosity about the origins of the word: The word is indeed a play on ABCD, but the word is quite old:

abecedary (n.)
"primer, alphabet table," mid-15c., from Medieval Latin abecedarium "an ABC book," neuter of adjective abecedarius, used as a noun, from the first four letters of the Latin alphabet. Abecedarian (adj.) is attested from 1660s.
Etymonline


Just noted, that the etymology definition offers a good alternative as well: primer. While this is not a good term for the person, it is a good term for the category of the course.

  • 1
    I love this, but I don't think it would ever be used in the context of what the OP is looking for. Then again, we don't know the context. – Jake Regier Jul 29 '15 at 21:30
  • 1
    Cool but as @JakeRegier said I don't think anyone would get this :) – PW Kad Jul 29 '15 at 23:27
  • What? Is this something Sarah Palin uttered: "Hiya folks. I may be an abcedarian but I can run this country." – michael_timofeev Jul 30 '15 at 0:34

Going by the title of your question, I suggest absolute beginner - I've seen it used in various educational contexts (such as the title of this book, tutorials etc).

Based on the phrase "green field" that appears in the question, I'd suggest "blank slate", which is defined by Merriam-Webster as "someone or something that is still in an original state and that has not yet been changed by people, experiences, etc.".

I would suggest neophyte.

neophyte |ˈnēəˌfīt|
noun
a person who is new to a subject, skill, or belief: four-day cooking classes are offered to neophytes and experts.
• a new convert to a religion.
• a novice in a religious order, or a newly ordained priest.

  • 4
    This answer was offered an hour ago by @sawbones. Generally a repeat answer is not a good idea unless it offers substantially more information, and even then, it is considered better practice to suggest the addition to the original answerer. – bib Jul 29 '15 at 19:23
  • Oh, sorry, I read his answer as being "newcomer" only, I didn't see his second suggestion. – miniluigi008 Jul 29 '15 at 19:25

The phrase rank beginner is sometimes used to describe someone who has no experience whatsoever (to distinguish from someone who has a little experience but is still at the "beginner" level).

  • {what goes here?} Intro
  • Beginner
  • Intermediate
  • Expert

Or you might want to change some of the other level names. For example:

  • Beginner
  • Intermediate
  • Advanced
  • Expert

There is a also a possible level above Expert: Challenge

While I like neophyte, I also offer "nescient" as an option as it describes a complete lack of knowledge or total ignorance. Sort of where I put someone who has developed an interest in a subject, but not yet acquired any real knowledge and having to work they way up to "beginner".

the term Beginner is defined by CED as: a person just starting to learn a skill or take part in an activity.

  1. a person or thing that begins.
  2. a person who has begun a course of instruction or is learning the fundamentals:
    swimming for beginners.
  3. a person who is inexperienced; novice.
    Dictionary.com

If you place any of the so far suggested synonyms before beginner you probably risk confusing the learner.

In horse riding a beginner can be any one of three levels: 1. Total Beginner; 2. Advanced Beginner; and 3. Confident Beginner. Followed by Novice, Intermediate, Advanced, and Professional. See: Different Levels of Riding Ability

The OP could adopt the expression Total Beginner, a level which clearly suggests someone who has no experience or previous knowledge of the subject.

  • Total Beginner
  • Advanced Beginner
  • Intermediate
  • Expert

I would say that a person who does not have any knowledge of a topic is...

unfamiliar

: not frequently seen, heard, or experienced

...with the topic.

While not explicitly a noun, I think the word expresses a distinct distance (in my opinion) from the subject than the next given rank of "Beginner" which (again in my opinion) expresses already at least some partial understanding and closeness to the subject.

Use the word "novice." Neophyte is popular here but it is used for people new to a belief or religious order. Based on your context no one would say they are intermediate with a religion. But they would say that for a skill, in the same way they would say "I'm a novice."

A common word used by the younger generation is noob.

  • to the AC downvoter: care to comment why this is wrong? (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Newbie, see the variants) – WoJ Jul 30 '15 at 12:32
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    I'm not the downvoter, but I do see that the word was already suggested. – dennisdeems Jul 30 '15 at 13:15
  • True, I missed in when going through the list. Fair enough then (a comment would have been useful, though) – WoJ Jul 30 '15 at 13:17

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