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What does It Mean to be "at a Loss"?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 23, 2024
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The idiom “at a loss” is used to mean that someone does not know how to respond to something. It is most classically seen in the phrase “at a loss for words,” which indicates that a person could not think of anything to say. You may hear or see this common English idiom used in a number of ways, and some people regard it as a cliché which should be avoided because it is so frequently used.

In the sense of “at a loss for words,” this idiom usually means that someone could not come up with an adequate verbal response to a comment or event. For example, someone who is surprised or startled might not know what to say, as might someone who is shocked by an event. People may also use this idiom to indicate that they didn't understand something, as in “I was at a loss for words after his last comment.”

People sometimes use the phrase in a somewhat derogatory way, to suggest that someone said something so idiotic or offensive that those present were at a loss for words. They may also use the idiom to describe emotional situations in which they were not really sure how to behave. Many people, for example, find themselves in this situation when approaching people at a funeral or memorial service, because they feel that phrases such as “sorry for your loss” are trite or meaningless because they are so overused.

More generally, one can be at a loss of response in general, not just words. After a film ends in a startling way, for example, the audience may not know how to respond. Likewise, protesters might feel this way after a march, uncertain about what to do now that they have reached their destination.

This term is also used in a slightly difference sense in the financial world, to discuss a situation in which someone is taking a financial loss. Classically, it is used in phrases like “I sold my assets at a loss because I was worried that the market would get worse.” When someone buys or sells at a loss, it means that he or she is taking a loss in the process, so people usually only embark on such an endeavor because they fear an even greater loss if they don't act quickly.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a Language & Humanities researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By sunshine31 — On Jun 12, 2011

@Sneakers41 - I also think that it is hard to talk to people that are grieving the loss of a pet. Some people treat their pets like children and when a pet dies it is really hard for them. You almost want to tell them that they can always get another pet, but you don’t want to seem insensitive.

I think that the only other time I was at a loss for words was when someone was so rude to me that I was actually shocked and could not believe what I was hearing. I hate when this happens because I always have regrets and feel like I should have said something at that time. These types of regrets are brutal because you keep replying the incident in your mind wondering why you did not say something else.

By sneakers41 — On Jun 09, 2011

@GreenWeaver -You make a good point. I remember when my cousin died at age 27, it was so hard to talk to my aunt. I could not imagine the type of grief that she was going through because losing your child has to be the worst feeling in the world.

I remember going to her house and bringing her some food, but I knew that she didn’t want to eat anything. I think that it made her feel better that I was there, but I at the time I was really at loss for words because there was nothing that I was going to say that would make her feel better.

By GreenWeaver — On Jun 07, 2011

@Sunny27 - I know what you mean and I think that everyone has difficulty expressing condolences. What I try to do is remember how I felt when people expressed condolences when my mother died.

I appreciated all of the cards and all of the people that were at the wake and I think that their presence made me feel so much better because I felt supported.

To me the action of being at my mother’s funeral or wake was so thoughtful that it didn’t matter the words that were used when someone was speaking to me. When I remember this, I relax and realize that most people are just looking for support so my words don’t have to be perfect when you are trying to comfort someone that had a death in the family.

By Sunny27 — On Jun 04, 2011

I know that for me I am always at a loss for words when there is a death is someone’s family. Grief and loss is so hard to talk about and it is really difficult to know the right words to say.

You want to be sensitive and say the right things, but you don’t want to overdo it and make the person cry even more. This is why I love condolence cards because you can write down how you feel and the grieving person can read the card when they have a private moment.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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