I'm looking for a succinct/elegant way of describing an event that went largely unnoticed at the time but in retrospect was the beginning of something much larger. For example, the birth of the World Wide Web was relatively inconspicuous at the time but obviously lead to great things.

The only idea that springs to mind is the idea of great oaks growing from small acorns, but it is too cliché and I'm looking for something more succinct, preferably just a simple adjective for such an event (if such an adjective even exists).

The closest such adjectives I can think of would be something like "understated" or "humble", but they perhaps do not give enough of an impressive of the great things that happened afterwards.

Another direction would be along the lines of "seminal" or "influential", but these do not give the sense of how "low-key" the event originally was.

Any ideas?

  • On second thought, the etymology of "seminal" as being "of a seed" fits perfectly what I'm looking for. I'm just worried that in its current usage, the connotation of humble beginnings has been lost?
    – badroit
    Sep 19, 2015 at 18:07
  • If you don't like seminal, try germinal.
    – Dan Bron
    Sep 19, 2015 at 18:07
  • Not one word, but maybe you could describe such things as having or being from "nondescript origins."
    – Papa Poule
    Sep 19, 2015 at 19:01

4 Answers 4


In the embryonic stage is an expression that may suggest the idea of something that is just at its earliest stages of development:

  • in an early stage; rudimentary; undeveloped.
  • of an organism prior to birth or hatching; "in the embryonic stage";

The Free Dictionary

From Istitutionalization of State Policy:

  • Although the Internet in China is still in its embryonic stage, its development has ...

I'll suggest not a word but a phrase.

Seemingly insignificant

Seemingly unnotable

Seemingly implies that it had the appearance of X, but X was not necessarily the case.


Late-blooming” wouldn’t describe the initial event (as you seek), but you could use it to describe the entire phenomenon (third full paragraph re "Family Guy" as a "late-blooming phenomenon" from USA Today).


  1. of or characteristic of a late bloomer: ‘late-blooming brilliance.’

  2. late in coming about or showing full development: ‘the country's late-blooming interest in soccer.’ – (Dictionary[dot]com)


The exact English phrase I think you were looking for was that

Mighty oaks from little acorns grow

See phrases.org.uk for more about its origins, but it was originally proverbial so has always been intended metaphorically.

I think "plant the seed for ..." may serve the meaning you want. Consider the following usages:

Think twice before you speak, because your words and influence will plant the seed of either success or failure in the mind of another. (source) — Napoleon Hill

It's clearly intended here that the words you speak have a more substantial and lasting effect than you would otherwise envisage. In a similar vein, consider:

The seed for later events is planted when Ray comes to see Marty to get the two weeks of pay he's owed and Marty warns Ray to beware of Abby two-timing him. — plot description of "Blood Simple" in The Coen Brothers: The Story of Two American Filmmakers by Josh Levine

A completely different suggestion: inauspicious means "Not conducive to success; unpromising; unlucky" (Oxford Dictionaries) which gives an example sentence: "following this inauspicious start the British, outnumbered, withdrew." But it's often used to signify something "humble" that "went largely unnoticed at the time", as you want, but which which led to greater things. Oxford gives the following example:

My career in Fleet Street began inauspiciously: the very first feature I wrote for the Guardian, more than a quarter of a century ago, elicited a libel writ. — Francis Wheen in The Guardian, 25 February 2002.

"Inauspiciously" doesn't of itself indicate that recovery and greater success followed: the next sentence could just as well have been "Within a month I had left journalism entirely, and embarked instead on a career in deep-sea angling." But it's often employed in a way that hints at it (here, the fact that the extract was written by a regular columnist in a newspaper rather gives it away).

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