I would like to know an unambiguous term used to designate words that are spoken vanishingly rarely, if at all.

Words that are never spoken, _________, illustrate the fundamental difference between spoken and written languages.

Such words as would be designated by the term might be scientific coinages, difficult to pronounce, prosodically awkward; whatever the reason, although the word can be pronounced, it is not; such a word is only encountered in written form.

When I attempted to recall the term, all I could come up with was

dictionary word, n.
(a) a word which may be found in a dictionary, a valid word; (b) a word which has been listed in a dictionary but which is rarely or never used, an obscure or recondite word.

["dictionary, n. and adj.". OED Online. December 2015. Oxford University Press. http://www.oed.com/view/Entry/52325?rskey=jj89IT&result=1&isAdvanced=true (accessed January 07, 2016).]

As can be seen, 'dictionary word', while it might be stretched to fit my use, is unsuitable in that (a) the first meaning given does not correspond to the meaning I intend, and (b) the second meaning given is inaccurate. The meaning in (b) is inaccurate and misleading because, for example, many scientific coinages are spoken rarely or never, but they will also never appear in a dictionary.

The term 'recondite word' might also be used, but it is inexact. 'Obscure word' suffers likewise.

Having failed to recall or discover the term, I am of course prepared to accept it does not exist; however, I seem to remember such a term being bandied about in some graduate English, Classics or Linguistics course in the early 1980s.

  • 2
    I've heard the term mute word for a word that has no spoken form at all, but I can't prove this with references. Ironically, your topic also could use examples of words that are only spoken,,,,,, if only they could be written down. – lauir Jan 7 '16 at 7:11
  • 'When I attempted to recall the term' indicates that you once knew that term, and hence that it exists. Is that true? – Edwin Ashworth Jan 7 '16 at 9:29
  • It would probably be useful for the OP to differentiate between "archaic" and "obsolete" words: grammar.about.com/od/mo/g/Obsolete-Word.htm – user146059 Jan 7 '16 at 11:41
  • @EdwinAshworth, I have to confess my memory is a more slippery item than you propose. It makes things up. In this case, I thought, I've been carrying around with me for many years the notion that I at one time knew such a word but, being unable to recall it and instead recalling 'dictionary word' cast that notion in doubt. As for the memory, it is quite detailed: I have a visual image of the professor writing the word in question on the blackboard underneath dictionary word when discussing the nuances of the concept. He pointed at the word with chalk in his left hand. – JEL Jan 8 '16 at 6:55
  • It's the use of 'recall' (which ODO defines as 'Bring (a fact, event, or situation) back into one’s mind; remember:' well before 'I seem to remember such a term being bandied about in some graduate English ... course' that makes garden path sentences look uncomplicated. // The underlying assumption necessary for a sound answer here is that the term 'word' itself is unambiguously defined. Previous threads have not shown this to be the truth. – Edwin Ashworth Jan 8 '16 at 23:27

You could consider using archaic words which are:

These words are no longer in everyday use or have lost a particular meaning in current usage but are sometimes used to impart an old-fashioned flavour to historical novels, for example, or in standard conversation or writing just for a humorous effect. Some, such as hotchpotch, reveal the origin of their current meaning, while others reveal the origin of a different modern word, as with gentle, the sense of which is preserved in gentleman. Some, such as learn and let, now mean the opposite of their former use.

[Oxford Online Dictionary]

Archaic words might suffer the same problem as other suggestions you included in the question, but "rarely (never) spoken word" could be the right phrase.

  • Yes, 'archaic' or the noun 'archaism' would require my explaining away even more dissonance than 'dictionary word' or 'recondite word', but +1 because I might have to accept 'rarely or never spoken word'. – JEL Jan 7 '16 at 7:08
  • I guess "rarely spoken word" is the best I can get. Thanks for the answer--it proved to be the most useful. – JEL Mar 10 '16 at 2:12

archaism [ahr-kee-iz-uh m, -key-] noun 1. something archaic, as a word or expression.


In language, an archaism is the use of a form of speech or writing that is no longer current or that is current only within a few special contexts. Their deliberate use can be subdivided into literary archaisms, which seeks to evoke the style of older speech and writing; and lexical archaisms, the use of words no longer in common use.

  • Surely literary archaisms are no longer in common use. '...and of lexical archaisms, which doesn't.'? – Edwin Ashworth Jan 7 '16 at 9:25

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