I'm looking for a word that would describe a phenomenon of noticing things only when they go wrong. "A thing that's only noticeable when it goes wrong is ... "

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    Is there a name for that in your native language? Commented Jul 3, 2017 at 13:48
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    What do you mean "it's noticeable when it goes wrong"? Do you mean something that manifests itself in rare situations and when it appears the result is not interesting? What is the context? If it's about a code or software then it can be called a bug.
    – Cardinal
    Commented Jul 3, 2017 at 18:42
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    @Cardinal Just in a general sense. Something that you pay no attention to while it works well, but start to notice it when it doesn't. Like UI or sound mixing or whatever. I guess the quote "When you do things right, people won't be sure you've done anything at all." is relevant. Commented Jul 3, 2017 at 18:59
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    I think from your answer to Cardinal's question above you want to say noticed not noticeable in the title and body of your question. Latent is responding to noticeable. But your question is more about the perceiver than the perceived.
    – TimR
    Commented Jul 4, 2017 at 10:37
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    My guess is the asker is thinking of plumbing, electrical wiring, your company's IT department, etc. - things that you take for granted when they are working properly. (I've heard apocryphal stories of managers laying off their IT employees because everything was working fine, only to have their whole computer system crash within a few weeks and then to have the company go bankrupt because they couldn't get anything done without computers) Commented Jul 5, 2017 at 0:48

9 Answers 9


This is a latent problem.

Latent problems lie undetected until they manifest themselves in a failure.

More widely, anything can be described at latent if it is present but undetected. For example a disease could have latent symptoms - you don't know that you have the disease.

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    @SovereignSun I don't think symptom is a good word here. it doesn't really capture the sentiment...
    – Alex K
    Commented Jul 4, 2017 at 5:15
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    Based on OP's sentence, it's hard to understand what is their intention. So, if they are talking about taking something for granted then this answer is not accurate in my opinion. I upvoted this answer, but I think it's not 100 percent related to the OP's question.
    – Cardinal
    Commented Jul 4, 2017 at 7:56
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    This really doesn't seem to be what the OP was asking for, particularly since the clarification ref UI or sound mixing.
    – peterG
    Commented Jul 4, 2017 at 16:43
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    @SovereignSun Please correct me if I am wrong, but aren't symptoms supposed to be detected problems, like a cough, nausea, etc.? Your link specifies no meaning like latent.
    – kettlecrab
    Commented Jul 5, 2017 at 0:55
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    I don't think the question is asking for something "present but undetected". Take, for example, the ability to walk. The vast majority of young adults take for granted the ability to walk: it's only when they e.g. break a leg that they notice how much they rely on that. But you wouldn't describe someone's leg as a "latent problem" on the grounds that it can be broken. Commented Jul 5, 2017 at 11:20

I think there are more basic answers with the connotations the asker is going for. Such a thing is "taken for granted" (phrase used in Kat's comment) or treated as a "given". If you are responsible for providing it, you have a "thankless job" -- you do essential work in the background and will get more attention for the one time it goes wrong than the thousand times you do the job right.

When something has always worked to the point that a breakdown is inconceivable and yet happens, that is a "black swan".


I think I know the kind of thing you are talking about. For instance, in film production, things like focus and keeping the microphone out of the scene are only noticeable if they go wrong. When you drive, you only really think about your brakes if they don't do as you expect.

But, if that's what you mean, then I don't think there is a word in English for it. The concept comes up often enough that variations on the description "that's the sort of thing that you only notice when it doesn't work" is one I've come across a number of times. So, if there is such a word, I don't think very many people know it.

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    In film, a special class of these only noticed when they go wrong issues is called continuity errors, individual instances are called discontinuities. For example, in one shot of a scene an actor holds a drink in one hand, and in another shot of the same scene the actor holds the drink in the other hand. Later when the shots are edited together for the final version of the scene in the film, an audience viewing the film may notice the drink jump from hand to hand. A special class of film viewer finds great joy in noticing discontinuities and pointing them out to others viewing the same film. Commented Jul 3, 2017 at 22:01

To borrow a term from organizational theory: hygiene factor

A hygiene factor is a something that does not generally contribute to satisfaction when present, but causes dissatisfaction when absent. Having good hygiene doesn't make a person more likable, but having bad hygiene would make others have a negative opinion of the person.


If you can use a twist on an idiom, I think an unsqueaky (or quiet) wheel would work well for this.

The traditional saying is

The squeaky wheel gets the grease/oil

meaning that the most noticeable problem (or complainer) will be tended to first. (See, for example, Wikipedia's page on the saying or Cambridge Dictionary's definition.)

Following this meaning, a wheel which doesn't squeak (isn't causing a problem) is not going to attract attention.

A couple of examples of the phrase used this way:

[T]here is a strong tendency [for decision makers to focus on] the steps that are known from the outset to be fraught with danger, the "squeaky wheels." Consequently, they tend to overlook the more subtle or hidden risks in any relatively nondangerous or routine step in the plan. This is what I refer to as "the unsqueaky wheel trap." —Irving Lester Janis, article in Information Systems: Failure Analysis, John Wise & Antony Debons, ed., 2012

I suspected the Unsqueaky Wheel hadn't gotten enough oil. Being undemanding in a hectic home, she was easily overlooked —Judith Ruskay Rabinor, A Starving Madness: Tales of Hunger, Hope, and Healing in Psychotherapy, 2013


You question specifically asks for a term that stands for two failures, one of which remains hidden until the other's failure. There are a few terms from specific disciplines that do this.

In genetics, its an "unexpressed" or "suppressed" gene. The unexpressed gene lacks an unlocking enzyme not normally present, while the suppressed gene stays turned off in the absence of a normally occurring blocking enzyme. When a genetic error elsewhere makes the unlocking enzyme or fails to make the blocking enzyme, we get an abnormality.

In espionage, its called a "sleeper cell."

In software, its called a "Time Bomb" or "Logic Bomb" virus, if deliberately placed, or a "conditional capture" if its an undetected mistake not found during normal program operations.

In statistics, its sample "covariance", which drastically reduces the true power of multi-variable correlations.

In systems diagnostics, its a "cascading failure".

I like "latent" as the expression of an inherent, perhaps unknown, failure mode; but, it doesn't automatically imply that something abnormal must occur before it comes to light. Any of the discipline specific terms up indicate the dual, dependent nature of the failures.

Good hunting.

  • I was going to say "time bomb" too. "Landmine" is another one along similar lines.
    – Dangph
    Commented Jul 4, 2017 at 6:08
  • "You question specifically asks for a term that stands for two failures" - does it? It seems to me to ask for a term for something that's so reliable that people take it for granted to the extent that they don't even realise they're taking it for granted. Commented Jul 5, 2017 at 11:17
  • Ah, I misunderstood "they" to mean the over situation, when you meant a non-gender single person pronoun. Then, yes, "latent", meaning hidden characteristic.
    – Ron Gordon
    Commented Jul 5, 2017 at 13:21
  • Ah, I misunderstood "they" to mean the overall situation. Then, yes, "latent" is a good answer. But here you clarify, that this is a latent characteristic whose significance eludes us until it stops being so. Examples: Something we "take for granted"; "you'll be sorry when I'm gone." ; the lack of appreciation for "innocuous" government services ; in Buffy St. Marie's song "They Paved Paradise" in which she laments the loss of trees and "my old man." Great question! I follow with interest.
    – Ron Gordon
    Commented Jul 5, 2017 at 13:56

The closest I can come to this meaning is "oversight", which actually has several meanings:

oversight (noun):

  1. watchful and responsible care, regulatory supervision
  2. an inadvertent omission or error.


The company claimed the accounting error was simple oversight, but the prosecutor countered that it actually counted as criminal negligence.

Because none of the committee was directly responsible for managing the investigation, its failure was due more to oversight than incompetence.

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    Be careful with this word. It's an "auto-antonym" or "contronym", which means one meaning is nearly the opposite of another. An "oversight" (omission) can occur due to lack of "oversight" (supervision). This has, for example, led to many puns about the "Oversight" feature of Wikipedia. Commented Jul 3, 2017 at 18:09
  • @DamianYerrick yes I completely agree. Even when reading the word in context it's sometimes difficult to understand which meaning the author intends. For example, I could rewrite the first example with "the accounting error was due to simple lack of oversight".
    – Andrew
    Commented Jul 3, 2017 at 19:00

In a software context especially, you could use:

  • Background task - something process that runs unattended;
  • Deamon - a task running in the background, without graphical elements.

I've called the types of devices which are noticeable only when they fail as "spleens".

The spleen is an organ found in mammals and reptiles whose operation is completely unnoticeable so long as it is healthy, few people even know its function even if they know its name. However, damaged or diseased spleens are very painful and very dangerous.

This is not a well-known usage of the word but I've found that people understand it easily.

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