I have asked an English well versed friend to translate an usual expression in my mother tongue (as is, not so relevant for the post) who prompted me: To be in limbo.

The only relevant point is that the expression I submitted for translation has nothing to do with religous matter.

I need an explanation in layman terms of all usual meanings of the expression when used in every day life.

6 Answers 6


The explanation given in the Oxford English Dictionary is as good as any of the secular meaing:

Any unfavourable place or condition, likened to Limbo; especially a condition of neglect or oblivion to which persons or things are consigned when regarded as outworn, useless, or absurd.


Just cross-reffing the Macquarie Dictionary (a reference for Aust std english if you're not familiar with it) as an alternative phrasing:

  1. a place to which persons or things are regarded as being relegated when cast aside, forgotten, past, or out of date.
  2. prison, jail, or confinement.
  3. -phrase- in limbo, in a situation characterised by uncertainty, as when waiting for a decision to be made.

One caveat - I have not generally heard people apply the 2nd usage for prison/jail, except as a euphemism. Even then, if we're trying to talk about someone in jail, we'll find other ways to step around the words.. this is my experience however, happy for others to counter with their own exp.

Again, from my experience, I'd probably highlight that being in a state of limbo has nothing to do with the quality of the individual/item in limbo, and the 'trap' as it were, is lacking in any kind of intent to restrict you or otherwise - hence the feeling of extreme powerlessness. You can reason with someone who hates you and is stopping your progress. You can't reason with someone who simply doesn't care (although, you can try all you like..).

Most often, I've seen it used in regards to administration-related events, where you're not dealing with a person, but a corporate/government entity, and a set of rules and procedures (read: bureaucracy). Visa and immigration applications being a notable one, and the other one that comes to mind would be sending building designs to a government body for planning approval.

Immigration applications are a good example actually. In a theoretical horror situation:

  • You can have good people (and bad) placing applications which are 100% compliant with the regulations.
  • At some point, for some reason, it gets put into a strange administrative state where it can't progress and can't be rejected (for example, because migration priorities have changed, and so other people get put higher up.. but that stream of people never shrinks and so you can never actually progress).
  • Said applicant can can make many representations to the relevant body, can shout and scream, etc but none of these will have any impact, since it'll take a change of either law/priorities (which is hard for a migrant from outside the country to engineer), or a change in the number of people who are applying that get pushed ahead of you.
  • The applicant is now stuck in limbo, and can do naught but wait.

To be in Limbo basically means you are subject to circumstances beyond your control that prevent you from doing something. For example, and this is just off the top of my head, if you have taken an exam for a qualification that you need to get a job. If it takes longer than you are expecting to get the result, you are said to be in Limbo because until you get that result, you can't apply for the job.

It does indeed comes from religion. In a few religions, Limbo is a place between eternal happiness (Heaven, Elysium, Valhalla) and eternal torment (Tartarus, Hell, Hel). If I remember correctly, in the Middle-Ages, the Church told people that if they didn't pay some money to the Church, they would go to purgatory (Christian word for Limbo).

  • 6
    The Catholic doctrines of purgatory and Limbo are actually different (and they've recently dropped Limbo while retaining purgatory).
    – TRiG
    Apr 20, 2012 at 12:15

suspended animation

In common use sans any religious undertones, to be in limbo would imply going into a state of complete inaction.

"Until you humor the officer, your file will not move for approval -- it will be in limbo".

"There was a dispute between the partners. So the business has gone into a limbo".

  • 1
    Not sure about a limbo.
    – Andrew Leach
    Apr 20, 2012 at 16:37
  • see How to use limbo in a sentence @ yourDictionary.com for some helpful examples.
    – Kris
    Apr 20, 2012 at 17:04

The meaning of limbo in common speech is rather different from its original religious use. As has been noted, limbo is distinct from purgatory (where you remain while in the process of "washing away your sins" on the way to heaven). Limbo, rather, is a place for the souls of those who are not qualified for either heaven or hell. The canonical example is if an infant dies before becoming able to distinguish between right and wrong - they are destined neither for eternal reward or eternal punishment.

So to take the metaphor strictly, "in limbo" means "neither in one place nor the other"; a somewhat indeterminate fate. I'm sure I've seen examples where the idea is of waiting for a decision from beyond one's control. The phrase "currently in limbo" would not sound wrong, while in the religious sense, limbo is an eternal state. I'd say that modern usage has moved on from the original sense, and now comfortably accommodates a broader meaning.


Limbo would be the state of after death, as one who is religious would be to say, neither in heaven nor hell.

It is a dark place of swirling mists, you are all alone until you speak, only then you will begin to see others. At first you are scared and afraid of your surroundings, but then you become calm and one with the place. You don't become tired, hungry, thirsty, and you are able to run for days on end if you wanted to.

You become what a spirit would be, but only stuck in that dimension, being Limbo, unable to go from that dimension to say this dimension(the human world or as others put it, the real world). Once you are stuck, you don't really get out. But in saying that, there are a few people that have gotten out, I personally know one of them. His determination, sheer will and absolute stubbornness is what I think got him out. And no, neither of us are religious... Not in the Christian way anyhow, and I respect all religions as they are, with no discrimination.