There are lots of words that I could use here. Flummoxed, Stuck, Perplexed, Lost, etc.

But is there a word or short phrase that actually means (or is a good fit for): a situation where in attempting to solve a problem, due to a lack of understanding, big-picture-clarity or knowledge-of-subject-specific-terminology, you aren't yet able to articulate/express the problem well enough to effectively seek or ask for help?

Person 1: Why don't you just google it?

Person 2: Because I'm still [fundamentally stuck for reasons I don't understand and can't explain]

I have a few perfectly cromulent Geordie phrases for this but they are little known, and not appropriate for polite conversation.

  • I gave you a thumbs-up for the word "cromulent." I'm going to try to use that in daily conversation. :^) – puppetsock Jul 19 '19 at 13:58
  • Why don't any of the words you proposed in your first sentence satisfy your condition? If you could use them, what's wrong with them? – Jason Bassford Jul 19 '19 at 19:43
  • @Jasombassford They just aren't as explicit as I'd like. They don't necessarily indicate at all that you can't explain why you're stuck. – Brent Hackers Jul 20 '19 at 9:45

Sounds like you are out of your depth.

This is used for a situation that is beyond one's capabilities, which would cover your inability to do the job and also the inability to comprehend it enough to know where to turn for help or how to ask for it.

Similar phrases include "in above your head", or "in over your head".

Entering a field that is new is sometimes referred to as "uncharted territory" (or "uncharted waters" if you want to stick with the watery analogies). Although this is intended to mean an entirely new, undocumented area, in daily use it is often applied on an individual level (eg "this is uncharted territory for me"). An alternative version is "unexplored territory" if that sits better with the idea that documentation does exist for it and the individual could access that.

Evidently, we like water analogies for this kind of thing because an individual who lacks experience is described as "wet behind the ears", or sometimes "green".

  • It does. That's a fair and accurate way to describe the situation (+1). It's not one I'd like to use, however. To me, saying that "I'm out of my depth" would imply accepting defeat, but I'm looking for language to use in an engineering problem solving context, where you might commonly find yourself "out of your depth" until you have better familiarised yourself with the problem/subject-matter/correct-terminology. – Brent Hackers Jul 22 '19 at 8:31
  • @BrentHackers Fair enough if you don't want to use that phrase - although I think the root of the phrase is suggesting that a learner swimmer has a particular depth that they are not yet ready to swim out to so it could still imply that they could do it once ready. – Astralbee Jul 22 '19 at 8:40
  • 1
    I take your point. And I've come round to the idea. – Brent Hackers Jul 22 '19 at 9:03
  • @BrentHackers Yay! I did also think of "This is beyond my pay grade" but its a bit glib and doesn't strictly mean you can't do something, maybe just that you shouldn't. – Astralbee Jul 22 '19 at 9:14

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