AskDefine | Define ineffable

Dictionary Definition

ineffable adj
1 defying expression or description; "indefinable yearnings"; "indescribable beauty"; "ineffable ecstasy"; "inexpressible anguish"; "unspeakable happiness"; "unutterable contempt"; "a thing of untellable splendor" [syn: indefinable, indescribable, unspeakable, untellable, unutterable]
2 too sacred to be uttered; "the ineffable name of the Deity" [syn: unnameable, unspeakable, unutterable]

User Contributed Dictionary



First attested in 1450. From etyl frm ineffable from etyl la ineffabilis < in- + effabilis < effero.


  • a RP /ɪˈnɛf.ə.bəl/, /I"nEf.@.b@l/
  • a US /ˌɪnˈɛf.ə.bəl/


  1. Beyond expression in words; unspeakable.
    Gay Watson, Stephen Batchelor, Guy Claxton, The Psychology of Awakening: Buddhism, science, and our day-to-day lives (2000) p. 100:
    As Alan Watts (1961) wrote, it involves trying to speak the unspeakable, scrute the inscrutable and eff the ineffable.
  2. Forbidden to be uttered; taboo.


beyond expression
forbidden to be uttered

Extensive Definition

To say that something is "ineffable" means that it cannot or should not be expressed in spoken words (as with the concept of true love or some taboo). It is generally used to describe a feeling, concept or aspect of existence that is too great to be adequately described in words, or that inherently (due to its nature) cannot be conveyed in dualistic symbolic human language, but can only be known internally by individuals.
In Zen it is often said that (by analogy) the finger can point to the moon but is not the moon; likewise words and actions can point towards what is ineffable but cannot make another know it. An important aspect of this is that, by focusing on what is doing the pointing (the finger), sight is lost of the moon itself.


"Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent." — Ludwig Wittgenstein
"The Tao that can be told is not the eternal Tao; the name that can be named is not the eternal name." — the Dao De Jing
"What can't be said, can't be said. And it can't be whistled, either." — F. P. Ramsey
"What cannot be spoken in words, but that whereby words are spoken." — Kenopanishad
"We shall grapple with the ineffable, and see if we may not eff it after all." — Douglas Adams in Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency
"I'm in the business of effing the ineffable." — Alan Watts
"You can't second guess ineffability, I always say." — Aziraphale in Good Omens

Things said to be ineffable

Things said to be essentially incommunicable

Things said to be incommunicable due to incomprehensibility

Things said to be too great to be uttered


ineffable in French: Ineffabilité
ineffable in Portuguese: Inefabilidade

Synonyms, Antonyms and Related Words

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