Two folks are asked the following question: "How do we best help the manatees?"

Person 1 says, "We need to focus on the supply chain."

Person 2 says, "What the hell's a manatee?"

A math professor of mine described the problem above as the "Manatee Problem" -- a problem in which the student simply doesn't even understand what's being asked, or doesn't understand the symbology of the problem.

One example word that might answer this is "Problem X is Y", where Y is the word I'm looking for.

Edit: one answer I've found is a "wicked problem", but this adjective "wicked" feels insufficient because it denotes when the constraints / obstacles to solving the problem are unclear or changing, whereas the word I'm seeking is one that communicates the knowledge necessary for the problem is pretty clear but simply unknown.

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    I don't understand your question. In your example, the real issue is with Person 2; there's nothing inherent in the problem itself that would suggest lack of knowledge on the part of the would be solvers. Oct 7, 2018 at 3:51
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    @michael.hor257k The issue is with both Person 1 and Person 2. In fact Person 1 is further from the truth than Person 2 because Person 1 either thinks he understands the question or is trying to cover up his total lack of understanding of it. Person 2 is closer to understanding the question because he can be educated about manatees and their endangered status. I agree, however, that the difficulty is not inherent to the problem (as it is with a 'wicked' problem): I would say that the problem was one of a lack of comprehension.
    – BoldBen
    Oct 7, 2018 at 4:18
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    It's not that the knowledge doesn't exist, it's just that these two students don't even understand the question. Oct 7, 2018 at 7:52
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    Are you looking for a technical term or something like (yes, it's a word) ununderstood? Oct 7, 2018 at 8:40
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    We say "it's all Greek to me". This has a special meaning to me because I actually had a math professor in college who was a visiting professor from Greece, and nobody understood a word he said for the entire semester.
    – Phil Sweet
    Oct 7, 2018 at 13:29

4 Answers 4


I think The correct answer is uncomprehended defined by Merriam Webster as "not understood or comprehended". If a subset (or even all) of the students fail to understand the question even though sufficient knowledge exists to answer it then the question is uncomprehended.

Uncomprehended questions are sometimes asked by technicians of various kinds when speaking to users with little understanding of the technology. For instance a car mechanic might ask "Have you had any problems with the EMS?" when speaking to an owner and just get a blank stare. Similarly IT support staff might ask "When did you last back up your data?" and get a similar blank stare.


As I read the OP's question they are seeking a word to describe a problem that is not so much currently unsolvable as insufficiently understood for anyone to begin to solve it. An example from history might be the problem of describing planetary motion when everyone was certain that the earth was at the centre of the universe. That problem was so difficult because its solution would require an, at the time, unimaginable paradigm shift. The best single word that I can think of, and I am not very pleased with it, is "paradigm-defying".


If your headline is a precise description of your problem, i.e. you need a word or expression for a problem for which there exists incomplete knowledge to solve it then I suppose this would be

a currently unsolvable problem

Rationale: you could not call it an unsolvable problem because your question implies that the problem as such would be solvable, but humankind (or whom ever you see as the subjects here) has not yet the knowledge to solve it, but could one day have it.

Curing tuberculosis once was an unsolvable problem.1 After better understanding of the cause of the disease was developed, and antituberculotica became available, curing tuberculosis became a solvable problem.

Under that light, one could have a nice and entertaining discussion whether time travel is an unsolvable problem (= can never be solved) or a currently unsolvable problem (could be solved in the future with enough knowledge available).

Interestingly even the question whether time travel is a solvable or unsolvable problem is at least a currently unsolvable problem: we do currently not have the knowledge to decide if time travel is principally possible, but we could one day have the knowledge to decide it. (Physicists, philosophers, psychologists and linguists, correct me if I am wrong).

I know, currently unsolvable problem is not a very beautiful idiomatic expression... finding one is for me a currently unsolvable problem because I lack the knowledge to solve it.

1) "Unsolvable" in terms of 2/3 of the infected, as tuberculosis without medication usually results in 1/3 of those infected dy, 1/3 develop chronic tuberculosis, 1/3 completely recover.


A word that immediately sprung to mind was a conundrum

a problem that is difficult to deal with:

  • The best shows pose moral conundrums that are hard to solve.

Oxford Dictionary Online defines conundrum as:

A confusing and difficult problem or question.

  • ‘one of the most difficult conundrums for the experts’

Merriam-Webster say a conundrum is:

1a : an intricate and difficult problem

  • He is faced with the conundrum of trying to find a job without having experience.

b : a question or problem having only a conjectural answer

  • … the political conundrums involved, particularly the problem of how the richer areas … can be made to subsidize the poorer. —Douglass Cater

and Wikipedia add that a conundrum is

A logical postulation that evades resolution, an intricate and difficult problem

Another meaning is a riddle, joke usually solved with a pun.

: a riddle whose answer is or involves a pun (as in "Why didn't the lost hikers starve in the desert? Because of the sand which is there.")

Personally, I like the sound of the word

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