words fail someone

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words fail someone (third-person singular simple present words fail someone, present participle words failing someone, simple past and past participle words failed someone)

  1. (transitive, idiomatic) Of a person: to be incapable of describing something with words, especially due to fear, shock, or surprise.
    • 1857 September, “Seeing the World”, in Harper’s New Monthly Magazine, volume XV, number LXXXVIII, New York, N.Y.: Harper & Brothers, publishers, 327 to 335 Pearl Street, Franklin Square, page 544, column 1:
      Nature has given me the passion for poesy, but refused me the boon of words and the faculty of expressing my thoughts. I think deeply, but when I wish to speak words fail me. If I wish to write, it is still worse.
    • 1882, Mrs. Oliphant [i.e., Margaret Oliphant], “Lady Jane”, in Good Words, volume XXIII, OCLC 949553278, chapter VIII (The Decisive Moment), page 202:
      Here he paused, so bewildered by the dignified unconsciousness and serene superiority of the potentate in whose presence he stood that words failed him, and he stood and gazed at that immovable countenance with a sort of appalled wonder to think that anything should be so great yet so small, so capable of making himself ridiculous, and yet with power to spoil two lives at his pleasure.
    • 2012, Belinda Castles, “Flora: Sydney, 2005”, in Hannah & Emil, Crows Nest, N.S.W.: Allen & Unwin, →ISBN, page 9:
      As she looked through more and more of these sheets, and found that they could be clustered, ordered, she realised with a start that the spaces were gaps in Hannah's memory of language, marking the beginning of her words failing her. Did she see that for herself? Did she write faster against the spreading of the gaps?
    • 2017 August 20, “Observer editorial: The Observer view on the attacks in Spain: We must not give into fatalism on terror”, in The Observer[1], London, archived from the original on 16 September 2017:
      Many survivors tried to describe what they felt, but words failed them. Hard to imagine, too, the emotions of the first responders – the ambulance crews, the medics and the police – faced by ghastly mayhem. It must have felt overwhelming, but they did their jobs and doubtless saved many lives.

Usage notes[edit]

The most common form is words fail me.


See also[edit]