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My son and I were discussing a legalism and he suggested that "ignorance of the law is no excuse" is not always correct usage. He contends that calling a person "ignorant" because he is unlearned, or uneducated about a matter depends upon whether he should have been aware of, or might have previously been oblivious to the matter. He recalled having learned another term, in a college English class, but which he could neither correctly pronounce, or spell. The best he could do was that it sounded like, "ness-e-ence." I couldn't find it in the dictionary either. Does anybody know this word and usage?

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  • An online thesaurus is a great tool for situations like this--look at possible synonyms to see if there's one where you say "that's it!" – Katherine Lockwood Dec 25 '16 at 1:37
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    Apart from the fact that nescient was the word he couldn't think of, I don't think your son’s argument holds up. Ignorant simply means ‘unknowing’ or ‘unaware’, whether such a lack of knowledge is reasonable or not. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Dec 25 '16 at 1:45
  • I wonder if, having heard "ignorant" often used as an insult, he (or someone he spoke to) imagined that it's only valid in situations that "merit" insults. – Dan Getz Dec 25 '16 at 15:31
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The word that your son was thinking of is nescience (and is pronounced as your son remembers).

Definition:

nescience noun [ U ] /ˈnes.i.əns/ formal

the state of not knowing

Cambridge Dictionary

Etymology:

nescience (n.)

"ignorance," 1610s, from Late Latin nescientia, from nesciens (see nescient).

Online Etymology Dictionary

Usage:

Google Ngrams shows that by far the greatest usage of this word relates to Buddhist philosophy:

An extreme wing of Advaita holds the view that there is only one nescience and that nescience reflects Brahman and as soon as that reflected soul attains release there is the destruction of the nescience.

New Indian Antiquary, Volume 2, Page 93, Karnatak Publishing House, 1940

However, the usage that you posit is not really valid. "Ignorance of the law" is a fixed expression, and nescience does not appear to be a legal term.

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  • Wow! +1 and thanks for the new word. – Cascabel Dec 25 '16 at 1:16
  • @Cascabel Strangely enough, I didn't know it until a couple of days ago. – Mick Dec 25 '16 at 1:17
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    This is certainly a word and most likely the one the OP was thinking, but it shouldn't not be used to replace "ignorance of the law". – curiousdannii Dec 25 '16 at 9:26
  • @curiousdannii It's a fair cop. The next time I'm up before the beak, I'll plead nescience. You never know. I just might get away with it. – Mick Dec 25 '16 at 10:49
  • Oops, that should be "shouldn't" or "should not", not "shouldn't not"... – curiousdannii Dec 25 '16 at 11:04
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Since the word "Nescience" cannot replace "Ignorance", your son is better off with the phrase "Negligence of the law is not an excuse".

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    This is not a valid replacement for the phrase, since it does not have anywhere close to the same meaning. – Cody Gray Dec 25 '16 at 12:57
  • At a college level writing, it implicitly have a close meaning; you have no knowledge of the law because you neglected it as it is publicly accessible. @Cody Gray. – M. Abdulai Dec 25 '16 at 13:20
  • @CodyGray Is right. Your sentence has a completely different meaning, even ignoring the specific legal meaning of negligence. – Corvus Dec 25 '16 at 22:07
  • As it happens, I'm quite familiar with college-level writing, having both written and graded copious quantities of it! No, does not have the same meaning, and even if you could find a definition of "negligence" that could arguably fit the role, it is ripe for misinterpretation, since that is not the standard definition of negligence. But you're not even going to find that definition. Negligence is a very well-defined legal term and has a completely different meaning than what is being discussed here as "ignorance". Negligence would imply a willful disregard. – Cody Gray Dec 28 '16 at 7:38

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