This is a question for English wordsmiths. Is there a word that "feels" like the word "ethereal" that means something ethereal that quickly disappears. Or is "ethereal" the correct word choice for this? Ethereal was the first word that popped into my head for this.

From the various definitions that I've looked at for ethereal, it says delicate, beautiful, heavenly, etc. but not necessarily quickly vanishing, except for the secondary definitions related to ether that suggests it evaporates. I'm just wondering if there is a better word than this.

I'm using the term "ethereal skill" to describe a certain type of pilot skill (instrument flying) that requires tremendous practice to achieve proficiency, and once proficiency is achieved it is a beautiful thing, but if you don't practice it regularly, that skill vanishes after a few weeks.

USAGE: Instrument proficiency is an ethereal skill that once obtained must be maintained through constant and regular practice.

  • I feel like [english.stackexchange.com/questions/505776/… linked question) is not a duplicate. That question is asking about things that become irrelevant or unfashionable quickly; this one is asking about things that become unusable or cease to exist quickly. Good answers to the one are not necessarily good answers to the other. Commented Feb 7, 2020 at 22:36
  • Though I'm glad Robusto has added an (ultimate) close-vote, mine was for lack of research; looking up synonyms for 'ethereal' quickly provides the answers below. Commented Feb 7, 2020 at 23:06
  • @TannerSwett: The top answers here are also there.
    – Robusto
    Commented Feb 13, 2020 at 14:28
  • @EdwinAshworth not true, I did more than a quick search, and these were the synonyms that I found "bodiless, formless, immaterial, incorporeal, insubstantial, nonmaterial, nonphysical, spiritual, unbodied, unsubstantial". Notice the lack of "ephemeral." Also, my original question states that I searched various definitions, and even listed some of them. I didn't list the synonyms that I found because they were all irrelevant as you can see from my list. I have no problem with your close-vote, but your reason for the vote makes me think you only read the title and not the text. :)
    – Devil07
    Commented Feb 14, 2020 at 15:55
  • Lack of research shown (and correctly attributed and linked). (Check at the Help Center). // Thesaurus.net gives vanishing, evanescen(ce); evanescent leads to ephemeral, fleeting, transient .... Commented Feb 14, 2020 at 16:50

5 Answers 5


You are probably looking for the word ephemeral.

ephemeral: Lasting for a very short time.

  • 1
    This should be a comment. And why am I the first to close-vote? Commented Feb 7, 2020 at 20:10
  • 12
    @EdwinAshworth: If I had posted it as a comment, somebody would have said "this should be posted as an answer." Commented Feb 7, 2020 at 20:52
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    So now you can convert it to a community Wiki to show that you value site integrity above inappropriate upvoting. Commented Feb 7, 2020 at 22:57

evanescent is a good match - definitions focus on loss and vaporous qualities. It seems to be applied most often to the loss of things with positive connotation.

MW defines it with : "tending to vanish like vapor",

Cambridge with "lasting for only a short time, then disappearing quickly and being forgotten"

Century Dictionary Online has a number of useful definitions and quotes. I like "Vanishing or apt to vanish or be dissipated, like vapor; passing away; fleeting: as, the pleasures and joys of life are evanescent.

Also from Century, this quote: "He [Wordsworth] seems to have caught and fixed forever in immutable grace the most evanescent and intangible of our intuitions, the very ripple-marks on the remotest shores of being." - Lowell, Among my Books

  • 1
    Chris, excellent answer, and welcome! The definition is spot on. :)
    – Devil07
    Commented Feb 8, 2020 at 23:58

I think, at least in the context of the digital industry and knowledge economy, we can broadly define three types of skills – Enduring, Tansient [sic] and Transferable.

Transient skills are those that change often and need regularly updating. Things like specific software packages, programming languages, tools, technologies, techniques and latest best practice.

What Do We Mean By ‘Skills’ Anyway? hirschworks.com

If it's not like riding a bike, then it's a transient skill.

transient, adjective. 1a : passing especially quickly into and out of existence

Synonyms: transient, transitory, ephemeral, momentary, fugitive, fleeting, evanescent


Skills that are 'use it or lose it' are fleeting.

fleeting, adjective. passing swiftly : transitory


"Instrument proficiency is a [transient/fleeting] skill that once obtained must... [obviously be practiced (because you used either of those words)]."

  • The skills mentioned by the article you quoted are not transient because they are easily forgotten, but because they quickly become obsolete. As far as I could find, this usage is consistent, for example here: books.google.lu/…
    – Aleksander
    Commented Feb 7, 2020 at 12:55
  • To continue with your metaphor, transient skills are not like riding a bicycle, but like riding a penny-farthing ;)
    – Aleksander
    Commented Feb 7, 2020 at 13:23

I'd like to suggest perishable. It's usually used for food, of course, but I think it sounds fine as a metaphor.

Lexico defines it as

  1. (especially of food) likely to decay or go bad quickly.

‘the storage of perishable foods’
‘caviar is extremely perishable’

You could write, Instrument flying is a perishable skill. If you don't use it for a few weeks, it rots.


@Mazura's answer of transient is excellent and even "the recognized word," if the skill is lost because of rapid change in the exterior world. Another way to describe a rapidly changing world where you have to keep practicing your skill to stay relevant would be to call the situation an arms race or even a Red Queen's race.

But in your case of instrument flying, presumably the skill is lost because it fades from the brain after a few weeks, not because instrument panels and weather conditions change their fundamentals every few weeks.

Less mystical, but you could also just say that the skill expires — that it is expiring. Or decaying.

Your word ethereal is actually quite apt IMVHO, because there's at least some minor tradition in fantasy RPGs of using the word ethereal to refer to magical weapons that are powerful but time-limited.

However, plenty of games use the name ethereal weapon for weapons that have some powerful effect but do not have the tradeoff of "expiring," more like a traditional holy weapon.

  • D&D 5th Edition has non-fragile ethereal weapons (their version of Hexx's ethblade spell is called spiritual weapon instead).
  • DotA 2 has non-fragile ethereal weapons as far as I can tell.
  • Nioh has some kind of Ethereal modifier that does not connote fragility as far as I can tell.

So I'm fairly sure that most people wouldn't agree with my opinion that ethereal is an apt word to connote time-limited power. :)

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