What is an English a word that would describe an ineffectual, questionable approach to someone or something so as to get different information on that subject?

In my language this word is the verb "a tatona". I looked it up in the dictionary, but no alternative has satisfied me.

I then checked Larousse, for in French, tâtonner, has the same meaning as in my language. Evidently neither of its alternatives have satisfied me too.

I will provide some examples so as to clarify my point as follows:

The word might be used, for example, to probe the snow in searching for survivors following an avalanche;

A thin ice covering a pool can be probed too in order to see if it sustains you;

In sports, in competition, be it team or individual when commencing and say that the opponents are still feeling each other's pulse? hoping to discover the opponents strongest and weakest points before the actual play starts in full;

In techniques when making small experiments so as to estimate a pattern or a model;

Figuratively, when saying that one probes the ground or the terrain; it means that one wants to check the status of someone or something.

I wonder what would be the equivalent in English of this word or maybe an expression might be better suited? Or would you advice me to use the appropriate word expressions) according to different contexts?

I thank you in advance.

  • 1
    The first word came to my mind was tentative. I'm not sure if it is applicable to all the uses of "tatona" you are thinking about. Apr 12, 2015 at 13:10
  • Dubious cones to mind as an answer to your question title, although it may not meet all the criteria detailed in your post.
    – user6951
    Apr 12, 2015 at 15:01
  • Thanks for your comment @DarmkerngT, nice as always! I thence discovered another false friend, in my language tentative is always a noun and means a try, an attempt whereas in English it’s an adjective and has a completely different meaning.  Apr 13, 2015 at 6:34
  • Most importantly, thanks for the edit, I just couldn’t do it! Dubious in terms of describing the approach is okay, i.e. if compared to a fully engaged approach when the combatants are not studying each other. Of course in many cases there’s no such a study period, one good punch, in the first second, knocks the other down and puts an end to the fight Apr 13, 2015 at 6:38

2 Answers 2


Half-hearted or feeble might do, although they are often used in contexts unrelated to getting information. We also use grope blindly figuratively to describe situations where the searchers have no clear plan of action; and we have "hit-and-miss".

They made a half-hearted attempt to prevent the fire from spreading, but soon gave up.

The War on Drugs has proved feeble in its attempt to stem the flow of drugs into the country; the drug lords have grown rich and powerful, and the prisons are filled to overflowing with non-violent criminals doing time for possession of narcotics.

The task-force groped blindly for answers.

The government's hit-and-miss approach to slowing runaway inflation resulted in a series of ill-advised measures that were abandoned almost as quickly as they were put in place.

  • Many thanks for all your efforts! Your answer has broadened my horizon.+1 Apr 13, 2015 at 6:39

As you may have discovered in writing your question, "probing" is probably the closest word to what you describe. That word is used with sports teams ("probing each other's defenses), and with looking for ("probing for") avalanche survivors.

It tends to indicate some specific purpose (as with "probing questions"), but indicates that you're looking for information about that purpose, not directly trying to accomplish it.

I wouldn't expect to see it used for experiments though. Those I might see described as "proof-of-concept," "validation" (as opposed to verification), or just "early" results/experiments/etc.

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