The sentence is:

Admittedly, for every lost prophet there is a crank who is simply lost.

This is from an article in The Economist, here: http://www.economist.com/node/21542193

I gather from the context that the sentence means to say at least that the participants of online forums are varied: There are intelligent people and there are cranks who don't know what they are talking about but insist on pushing their ideas. And, using two instances of lost is clearly a clever thing which The Economist is known for. But the meaning of lost prophet in general and in particular for this context is, well, lost on me. I Googled and found that Lost Prophet is at least the name of a book, so using these two words together clearly isn't a first the news weekly. My guesses are:

a) a prophet who's prophecy is "lost" on others; the prophet is ignored, not heeded;

b) a prophet who was lost (= unknown, unreachable) to the world but re-found and greatly appreciated on the online forum for his/her words;

c) a prophet who lost on one of his/her economic predictions, having made a bad prediction.

Any input would be appreciated.


3 Answers 3


I think you're close in your first suggestion, but it's not so much that the lost prophet's words are unheeded so much at it is that his words are unappreciated, or not understood, especially at the time of their utterance.

Quite often, a lost prophet's contemporaries can't comprehend his message, so they don't recognize his brilliance; to many, he seems merely wayward and confused. Later on, though, people begin to recognize and appreciate his genius, and thus the label is bestowed as a belated compliment.

In the Economist article, the author is talking about conversations that foster and refine major ideas – whereas such conversations were once largely confined to university campuses, the online environment now allows more people to participate. But this wider audience is a mixed blessing: for every brilliant recluse there is a shallow curmudgeon.

The back-and-forth between bloggers resembles the informal chats, in university hallways and coffee rooms, that have always stimulated economic research, argues Paul Krugman, a Nobel-prizewinning economist who blogs at the New York Times. But moving the conversation online means that far more people can take part. Admittedly, for every lost prophet there is a crank who is simply lost.

In this case, the label lost prophet is not so much being bestowed belatedly by historians, but applied to one who has perhaps had the keen insights all along, but, until now, had never been granted a seat at the table. But, as the article implies, that next person pulling up a chair could be a keen savant – or could be a blustery know-it-all instead.

  • I like this interpretation! Intuitively, I felt that the sentence with two instances of lost must involve a contrast between the brilliant and the dumb. So, the lost prophet's words are (initially) lost on others, not understood. This sense of lost is also more in line with that Amazon book titled "Lost Prophet". After all, I feel it is less likely for someone to write a book about someone who is a metaphorically blind prophet trying to lead others than someone who is a true, albeit not understood, prophet.
    – langtechie
    Jun 11, 2012 at 9:41

I've never heard the term "lost prophet" as any sort of stock phrase. (Maybe this is a British term or a term from some religion that I'm unfamiliar with.) But in context, he's making a contrast between a "lost prophet" and a "crank who is lost", so it appears that by "lost prophet" he must mean someone who offers wise advice but who is ignored.

  • +1 for the contrast. It goes with the for every ... there is ... pattern.
    – langtechie
    Jun 12, 2012 at 8:30

A "lost prophet" (at least to me) has always had a meaning similar to "blind prophet." In other words, a blind person trying to lead others.

In your reference, this expression is placed side by side with a "lost crank." Unlike the lost prophet who has at the very least the intention (obsession)of getting others somewhere and perhaps inaccurate references and a wrong belief, a "lost crank" is just someone who is... well, completely lost.

This applies to the lowering of admission standards in online forums, which is the topic of your article.

"Crank" is also used to refer to a person who stubbornly sticks to an unusual view.

(I definitely hope I'm not being either right now.


  • Makes some sense, at least in connection with the lowered standards mentioned in the next sentence. If this "lost" is paraphrased as "blind, not knowing the direction", then it's rather close to the meaning of the lostness of the crank. This conveys a somewhat negative attitude on The Economist's part about online forum participants. This I didn't expect.
    – langtechie
    Jun 11, 2012 at 8:58
  • 1
    I wouldn't say The Economist was rather negative about online forums. Although it did criticize bloggers and "cranks" at first, the whole article was about the healthy democratic system of exchanging views and awarding merits to those whose opinion was deserving
    – Cool Elf
    Jun 11, 2012 at 9:07

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.