A distinguished colleague and I have been scouring our resources for a noun which correctly articulates the distinction between a pangolin and a croissant. Exempli gratia, one is alive, the other is not, yet both would be on a spectrum which this word describes, henceforth the two are related by this elusive word.

Nouns broaching the concept we desire to convey include:

  • Liveliness
  • Corporeality
  • Sentience
  • Cognizance
  • Mortality

Yet each of the aforementioned words fall short of a satisfactory definition.

Example usage:

Man (or woman): "That looks like a croissant." Woman (or man): "I'd say it's a pangolin, but who am I to assume its [__________]?"

This example was adapted from a recent conversation which was ground to a startling halt due to our collective lack of knowledge and comprehension of the English language. Our conundrum has severely impeded our ability communicate, to the point at which we must humbly grasp in desperation into this vast hive mind of linguaphiles for an answer.

We thank you dearly, with the kindest sincerity.

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    I believe the usual term in linguistics is animacy. – StoneyB Jul 30 '17 at 6:44
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    That little mammal looks nothing like a croissant. Even if they looked alike, one is an animal, the other is a pastry. I think you are unnecessarily complicating the matter. – Mark D Worthen PsyD Jul 30 '17 at 6:44
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    Vitality {From AHD: '1b. The characteristic, principle, or force that distinguishes living things from nonliving things.'} Collins gives 'a less common term for vital force'. But this sense is swamped by the more common one and sounds at best strange / pompous. – Edwin Ashworth Jul 30 '17 at 7:41
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    I have slathered my pangolin in Confiture de groseilles de Bar-le-Duc, and yet she does not inspire my appetite. Have I misapprehended the nature of the investigation? – P. E. Dant Jul 30 '17 at 8:46
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    @EdwinAshworth I think you're right with vitality. Animacy focuses on sentience. Plants lack animacy but retain vitality - I think this is how many people would read the difference. – Patrick Keenan Jul 30 '17 at 13:28

I do think that sentient / sentience perfectly fits the bill. However, I can see a reason why you'd think it's not quite correct.

Why I think it's correct

What is sentience?

  • Wikipedia - Sentience is the capacity to feel, perceive, or experience subjectively.
  • Dictionary.com - condition or character; capacity for sensation or feeling.
  • Merriam-Webster - feeling or sensation as distinguished from perception and thought
  • Oxford - Able to perceive or feel things.

That sounds to me like the definition of being alive. I could elaborate on this further, but I think my argument here is clear (feel free to comment if you disagree): being alive means experiencing/perceiving things.

Why you might think it's incorrect

This is of course an assumption based on your question.

Technically, sentience speaks to the cognitive capacities of the object, as opposed to its "being alive".

From that perspective, I can understand that you consider sentience to not necessarily be wrong, but rather to be focusing on something different than what you're focusing on.

(this is my opinion) I think that these are two sides of the same coin. They are synonymous, and there is no practical difference between the two and there is no point to ever differentiate between the two.
And if there's no distinction to be made (alleged by me), then they are functionally synonymous, and therefore it is correct to use "sentient" to describe that something is alive.

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