What is ‘aporia’?

Reading time: Less than 1 minute

Increase your vocabulary and you’ll make your writing much more precise. That’s why I provide a word of the week. Today’s word: aporia…

As a long-time fan of the writer Ian McEwan, I read his latest novel, Nutshell, eagerly. Even though I found the plot a little disappointing (it felt more like a writing exercise than a novel) I still enjoyed his writing skill, which, as always, was formidable. He also gave me a word of the week, aporia. Here’s how he used it:

Instead, wrapped in whispers are ellipses, euphemisms, mumbled aporia followed by throat-clearing and a brisk change of subject.

I had to grab my dictionary to look up the noun. Turns out if refers to an expression of real or pretended doubt or uncertainty especially for rhetorical effect, or a logical impasse or contradiction. In researching the etymology of the word I came across a fascinating discussion in Wikipedia that claimed:

The separation of aporia into its two [Greek] morphemes a- and poros (‘without’ and ‘passage’) reveals the word’s rich etymological background…

The passage went on to say that the root words are strongly linked with other words belonging to the same family and are part of a “tradition” that philosopher Plato (statue pictured above) borrowed from, particularly in his Symposium. The passage concluded: “Such history provides insight into aporia’s perplexing semantic qualities as well as into the historical context in which the word functions as an indicator of the limits of language in constructing knowledge.” If this intrigues you, I suggest you read the entire entry, here.