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Strange Acquaintances

Goal

I am looking for a word to describe someone I know exists but that I have not yet met in person or virtually.

Example

I have an acquaintance named Bob whose mother is named Mary. I know Mary exists but we have not yet had any interaction and Bob has not mentioned me to her, so Mary knows nothing of me or at best the same, that my name is Jeff and I am Bob's acquaintance. We are strangers to each other but I know something of her that, in my mind at least, removes her from the 'stranger' category, namely, that her name is Mary and she is Bob's mother. People I know of from media would fall into this category for me, e.g., Kevin Bacon, Abraham Lincoln, and Lorena Bobbitt.

Baseline

I tend to think of strangers as people I do not know and do not intend to know but whom I have been made aware of by circumstance. To me, strangers remain strangers unless we learn each other's names, run into each other again, or have spent enough time together that I should know their name but for some reason I did not learn or remember it - at which point we become acquaintances; an acquaintance being someone I have met physically or virtually whom I would be expected to remember and who would be expected to remember me.

Intended Usage

I am writing a little address book app and would like to classify people I have been made aware of, like Bob's mom, Mary, so that I can exclude them from things like reminders to get their phone number or email address. I want to remember that Bob's mom's name is Mary so I can remember to ask him about her next time we meet. I have no intention of contacting Mary but would like to store her in my app as I do Bob and everyone else so I can capture her phone number, etc., should that ever become a necessity or convenience.

Sample Sentence

"Mary is a(n) <insert word here> since her son, Bob, is an acquaintance of mine and I merely know of her, having been told of her by Bob five minutes ago."

Dictionary & Thesaurus Searches

  • Stranger (Most likely candidate)
  • Acquaintance

Notes

  • Bob and Mary are fictitious people concocted in service of this question.
  • I do not foresee a need to store Kevin Bacon, Abraham Lincoln, or Lorena Bobbitt in my app.
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11 Answers 11

16

I am looking for a word to describe someone I know exists but that I have not yet met in person or virtually.

I suggest a checkbox labeled "Know of" for people you know of, but do not know personally.

know of (phrasal verb transitive)

(Know of someone/something) — to know that someone or something exists and who, what, or where they are Macmillian

Perhaps you should work backwards and think first of the uses you could have for this category or categories (e.g. sending holiday greetings, following up for more information, adding to a family mailing list for newsletters, emails, etc.) and then deciding on a checkbox label for each purposes.

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  • I'll have to think more about this one. Certainly, if there is no one word I will need to use a compound word or boolean flags like this.
    – jhachtel
    Dec 23, 2021 at 18:20
  • Is the one-word stipulation crucial if this is an app for your personal use?
    – DjinTonic
    Dec 23, 2021 at 18:22
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    "Know by" is similarly used, if you know of a person by way of something they have done, for example to know someone by reputation, or know someone by their works.
    – barbecue
    Dec 26, 2021 at 0:12
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In an app, it's best that the word or phrasing is unambiguous, especially if users include those who are not fluent English speakers.

I know Mary "only by name". Alternative versions include: I know Mary by name only. I only know Mary by name. Mary is someone I know only by name. etc.

"Only" is mostly an emphasis to clarify the familiarity, and may be omitted in some context. -Do you know any actor? -I know Kevin Bacon by name. Here, "by name" gives just as much information as "by name only", because it's presumed the speaker does not know Kevin Bacon personally.

"By name" indicates the least amount of past interaction among the suggested words.

A closely related verb form is "hear of", as in "I have heard of Mary". It is similar to "know of" but "hear of" indicates that the two parties never met. Furthermore, "hear of" may or may not include knowing anecdotes of the person, but "by name" is essentially only knowing the name.

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4

Best expression I can think of for that is "friend of a friend". Obviously this isn't literally true in all cases, but offering "mother of a friend", "second cousin once removed of a friend", etc. would be rather more options than is reasonable.

According to Is there a single word for a "friend of a friend"?, the most likely single word is "acquaintance", but I agree with your reasons for ruling that out.

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    This is actually good — more straightforward than my offering. The single word is "friend-of-a-friend". Don't worry about the literal meaning of "friend". The word has become so debased by anti-social media that it is quite reasonable. (Note, I didn't say I "like" it, because that word has been debased too.)
    – David
    Dec 23, 2021 at 22:05
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If I were a politician I might call such a person a:

“known unknown”

but I’m not, so I think it might be more appropriate to reverse this as an:

“unknown known”

Coda
I originally wrote “You read it here first.”, but there is apparently a movie of that name, and it appears that after the original usage all the known and unknown combinations have been explored. Still, in this context, I think it‘s rather good. (Of course it’s two words, but if there were a single word that fitted, it would have been suggested already. You can’t have jam on it as well.)

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It seems you are looking for a category of “contacts” or “connections” (people) whom you don’t personally know.

Since you mentioned Kevin Bacon, I thought of six degrees of separation:

. . . the idea that all people are six or fewer social connections away from each other. As a result, a chain of “friend of a friend” statements can be made to connect any two people in a maximum of six steps. . . . The idea is sometimes generalized to the average social distance being logarithmic in the size of the population.

LinkedIn, for one, labels people as 1st-degree, 2nd-degree, or 3rd-degree connections relative to you.

1st-degree is someone you know. 2nd-degree is someone connected to your 1st-degree. 3rd-degree is someone connected to your 2nd-degree.

Working with that, perhaps you could imagine the structure as:

Contact

Degree

Where your friend Bob is a Contact and his mother Mary is a Degree

degree noun

1 : a step or stage in a process, course, or order of classification
     // advanced by degrees
     // We all know that you’re only three degrees away from all sorts of interesting and even famous people on social media.— Alex Proud
. . .
3 genealogy : a step in a direct line of descent or in the line of ascent to a common ancestor

Source: Merriam-Webster — degree

I’ve included the definition at 3 to suggest that you could use the term more figuratively — beyond just the literal step — to suggest a relationship (even if it’s not a familial one).

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  • 1
    This setup is fairly well established in several fields. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Erd%C5%91s_number
    – Phil Sweet
    Dec 23, 2021 at 21:52
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    LinkedIn actually uses that very concept. Dec 26, 2021 at 19:24
  • Tinfoil Hat, I like where you're headed here. It might work out well to use 'Connection'. Maybe, I could use 'Connection' as a positive version of 'Stranger', since 'Stranger' seems like the technically correct word but with a negative connotation. Only problem I see is that it already has a related definition: 'people with whom one has social or professional contact or to whom one is related, especially those with influence and able to offer one help.' I don't know, what do you think?
    – jhachtel
    Dec 30, 2021 at 1:43
  • @PhilSweet, That is fascinating, thanks for sharing. Like the age of the planet as derived from The Bible, I thought I was the only one to come up with something like that. Should have known better. Bishop Ussher beat me to the one, Erdos beat me to the other. (No, sorry, I don't think Earth is ~6,000 years old, I just did the math when I was young and thought I was a genius for figuring it out. Lol...) In Discrete Math class I came up with a number system to calculate relationships, different than Erdos's, but not better. :)
    – jhachtel
    Dec 30, 2021 at 1:51
  • @Tinfoil Hat, I like the thinking with Degree, but I'm worried it might be a bit too much of a semantic stretch if other developers were to ever have a part in it. I don't expect any would, but you never know. I'm going to have to chew on it a bit.
    – jhachtel
    Dec 30, 2021 at 2:01
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The only person using this address book app is the OP themself. Thus the OP can choose any word and attach any meaning to it. For example, unmet or nonmet would refer to people whom the author has never met in real life.

That unmet actually refers to a requirement that has failed or whose objective has not been reached would not matter. The creator and sole user of the app will have attached their unique definition to be used exclusively by them.

Nonmet
A person whose existence I know of but I have never physically met in real life.

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    Mari-Lou A, Gave an upvote for sticking to one word. :)
    – jhachtel
    Dec 30, 2021 at 1:58
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I would use "second-hand acquaintance" to indicate an unmet acquaintance of someone that I know personally. You can extend that to third, etc for additional degrees.

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Third Party.

While normally used in the context of legal or business matters, its more general definition as some person or entity of incidental interest seems both apposite and established in the use you intend.

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  • Stacker Lee, I was about to navigate away, but it struck me that 'Incidental', as a noun, might work. In a sentence, "Mary is an Incidental contact". In code, Mary is an Incidental, a type of Contact. Seems ok, but I'm feeling a bit weird thinking about a person as incidental (noun, 'Minor item', sense). What do you think?
    – jhachtel
    Dec 30, 2021 at 1:57
  • Technically it might be ok (you make a good observation), but whatever decision you make should be understood by your target audience. If that's just you, it's fine; if you intend it to be used by others, it might be better to choose a word or phrase they will immediately understand. Dec 30, 2021 at 7:11
  • As I've just used it in the comment, I should point out that "Others" is also simple and works. I thought of it when I posted my original answer but perhaps it doesn't work quite so well in your example sentence. You probably need to choose a word for both sides; the rendered view and the data model. They may or may not be the same. Dec 30, 2021 at 7:26
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You're getting a lot of good answers appropriate for usage in literature, but I think based on your question that you have a very specific usage: A category name for contacts of your contacts whom you don't actually know.

I propose an invented word: Metacontacts (or meta-contacts, if you prefer)

From Merriam Webster:

concerning or providing information about members of its own category

or, as a prefix:

situated behind or beyond

These are not people you know (your contacts) -- they are people known to the people you know. They're your "Contacts' Contacts", or your metacontacts

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    Josh, I like this idea and will give it some consideration. I think I would use Meta as a prefix to acquaintance, though, 'Meta-acquaintance'. Would be used as MetaAcquaintance, meta-acquaintance, or metaAcquaintance depending on the context. Going to have to chew on it a bit. What do you think of this idea?
    – jhachtel
    Dec 30, 2021 at 1:32
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No such word or phrase exists, or comes close. The nearest you might get in English would be 'Mary is someone I don't know, but (do) know of (her)…'; alternatively, 'I know of Mary but I don't (actually) know her'

Dropping the contrast, you might say 'Mary is someone I know of' or 'I know of Mary' but only ever as a follow-up to something said earlier.

In my view, nothing in that Question suggests there's any difference between Mary specifically and anyone else you've heard of in general, as your examples illustrate well.

Can you accept that nothing like '… Bob has not mentioned me to her, so Mary knows nothing of me or at best the same, that my name is Jeff and I am Bob's acquaintance…' matters here? I mention this because it does matter that you thought it worth including…

Can you accept that people you know of from media make the real-life Mary-and-Bob example clearly different, if not irrelevant?

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  • No argument from me, I agree. I guess I'm approaching it from two angles, the semantics of language to aid in programming, and my intelligence as it relates to the semantics of relationships; intelligence as the ability to make increasingly finer distinctions. There may be English language limits, pedantry, or navel-gazing at work here, but I thought it worth asking the question. It's turned out to have been fun as well as educational. I may end up with a generic type for all and use something like an Erdos number to sort it all out. Dunno...
    – jhachtel
    Dec 30, 2021 at 2:11
  • @jhachtel Mari-Lou A seems to have hit the nail on the head. By the way, Bob and Mary being fictions concocted for the question seems rather a dangerous distinction. That they're fictions should matter only because something about their example doesn't fit the bill. Dec 30, 2021 at 14:31
  • @jhachtel Similarly, not seeing a need to store Kevin Bacon, Abraham Lincoln, or Lorena Bobbitt might be dangerously like Bill Gates handicapping DOS because he saw no need for more than 640K RAM, like IBM suiciding because it saw no need for more than a handful of microcomputers; like the Millenium Bug… Address-book apps of any size can seem marvellous, until they stumble over a need to share data, at which point what different developers didn't foresee prevents either Export or Import or both. Sorry to go so far off the original topic. Dec 30, 2021 at 14:42
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I guess the word you're looking for here is something similar to friend/family of an acquaintance. Stranger is too remote as it indicates you know the bare minimum about them; acquaintance is too close as it indicates you have met - which you haven't.

I don't think that there is a single word for this. The best description that comes to mind here is distant acquaintance, which in my view, indicates that you are familiar with them but they are not familiar with you.

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    Might be a limitation of the language. I wonder if there is a foreign word that could be used legitimately as a loanword instead?
    – jhachtel
    Dec 23, 2021 at 18:06
  • @jhachtel The definition of loanword is 'a word adopted into the lexis of the English language directly from a foreign language'. What you mean is 'foreign word'. Off-topic here. Dec 23, 2021 at 20:02
  • @EdwinAshworth, If I adopt the foreign word as my word, doesn't that make it a loanword?
    – jhachtel
    Dec 30, 2021 at 1:27
  • ... No. A 'word' is (a) used and read with a largely overlapping meaning but (b) by a reasonable fraction of the relevant domain. This is of course a grey area, but one person using a bounded string is insufficient. Indeed, pseudowords [Wikipedia] exist. // If a foreign word is mentioned in an English passage, it is set off as such by scare quotes. Again, this does not immediately make it a loanword. When quality dictionaries recognise that the usage has been fairly commonly accepted, they list it as part of the lexicon. The scare quotes are dropped. Dec 30, 2021 at 14:49

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