We were thrilled a few weeks ago when, scanning headlines in Google News, we came across this one from the Los Angeles Times:

Mercury is shrinking, NASA craft finds; a cool clue: 'lobate scarps'

Our moment of excitement arose not because of a particular interest in Mercury, but because an editor had taken the bold step of letting lobate ("lobe-shaped") appear in a headline, fully accessible to the general public, without a gloss. We have always been partial to the wide range of Greek and Latinate adjectives in English that characterize particular shapes precisely and have lamented that they enjoy little popular usage. Sadly, these adjectives are destined to brighten only small corners of English: taxonomy, anatomy, botany, and the like. Speakers and writers generally prefer to characterize shapes by more familiar terms, and English is blessed with the very productive combining form -shaped: one easy-to-pronounce syllable, tackable onto any noun designating a concrete thing, and it even carries the imprimatur of Old English origins.

Characterizing shapes is a perennial challenge for lexicographers: the goal is always to define a word in terms simpler, or more familiar, than the word being defined; but many shapes, even the most familiar ones, obey the dictum that "a picture is worth a thousand words." And of course lexicographers never have a thousand words: in fact, if they go over twenty or so words in a definition they start to sound long-winded and may invite sidelong glances from their peers. So the challenge is, how do you characterize a shape concisely — often one that is already familiar to the dictionary user — using only simple words? Take, for example, doughnut. Most dictionaries have recourse to a phrase that includes "ring-shaped" somewhere in the definition; not because ring-shaped is completely satisfactory (have you ever seen a ring as fat as a doughnut, or a doughnut as meager as a ring?), but because the adjective that most concisely exemplifies the shape of a doughnut — namely toroidal — does not make the league tables for even the 10,000 most frequent words in English. A dictionary that defined doughnut as "a toroidal pastry" — concise and elegant though it may be — would evoke sneers and titters in lexicographic circles, and opprobrium from the dictionary-using public.

By the same token, most dictionaries use "doughnut-shaped" or "shaped like a doughnut" as a handy reference in their definitions of torus, toroid, or toroidal — usually after spelling out in more technical language the way the shape is generated geometrically. This is quite acceptable in lexy circles, and welcomed by dictionary users: it's always desirable to give a familiar reference in a difficult definition, and happily, every English speaker probably knows what a doughnut looks like.

We got it into our heads to do a little survey of how people use -shaped compounds to bring a little more clarity to the thing they're talking about and we can now startle and amaze with these facts. The top twenty noun+-shaped compounds in contemporary English, more or less in descending order of frequency are:

  1. heart-shaped 
  2. pear-shaped
  3. wedge-shaped
  4. bell-shaped
  5. cone-shaped
  6. oval-shaped
  7. star-shaped
  8. diamond-shaped
  9. egg-shaped
  10. crescent-shaped
  11. dome-shaped
  12. almond-shaped
  13. spindle-shaped
  14. horseshoe-shaped
  15. bowl-shaped
  16. rod-shaped
  17. ring-shaped
  18. fan-shaped
  19. cup-shaped
  20. disc-shaped

Interestingly, many if not most of these compounds have technical equivalents that enjoy almost no popular usage: there's cuneiform for wedge-shaped, amygdaloid for almond-shaped, stellate for star-shaped, etc. Some of these -shaped compounds are common enough to merit dictionary entries themselves. The top contender on the list, however, is curiously neglected by dictionaries. Heart-shaped is in the OED (and in the VT), but the American college dictionaries largely ignore heart-shaped. Is it because it's a transparent compound — that is, a compound word that doesn't need unpacking for native speakers? Perhaps so, but when a native speaker sees or hears heart-shaped, it's not an image of the pulsating vital organ that flies to the seat of consciousness but rather the stylized heart, ♥. We wonder if this is apparent to non-Western, nonnative speakers of English who were not raised on Valentines and playing cards: learner's dictionaries tend to be just as neglectful of heart-shaped.

On the other hand, how do you explain the shape of the stylized heart? The OED weighs in with a 22-word definition that isn't all that friendly to the basic speaker of English: "a conventionalized symmetrical figure formed of two similar curves meeting in a point at one end and a cusp at the other." Merriam-Webster's Collegiate has "a stylized representation of a heart": true, but not so helpful. Random House Unabridged is perhaps clearest of all, but doesn't escape use of the not-so-familiar word cusp: "a conventional shape with rounded sides meeting in a point at the bottom and curving inward to a cusp at the top."

Letters of the alphabet are also popular with writers as shape paradigms. The top ten [letter]+-shaped compounds, again in descending order of frequency, are as follows:

  1. L-shaped
  2. U-shaped
  3. V-shaped
  4. T-shaped
  5. Y-shaped
  6. S-shaped
  7. C-shaped
  8. J-shaped
  9. X-shaped
  10. D-shaped

These compounds, along with "figure-8," are about the closest thing that English has to pictograms. The beauty of these words is that they are foolproof, requiring no definition and carrying their full meaning with them, for anyone who understands "-shaped." This makes us wonder if now is not the time to introduce into popular English usage some other pictographic adjectives: first among them, ♥-shaped, but perhaps some others that might be equally useful, like ☾-shaped, ♣-shaped, or ♛-shaped.

Will that ever happen? Even in this digital age when the rules of alphabetic use are being stretched, we still don't seem to like adventitious symbols appearing in text. There's also the problem of standardizing pronunciation. But the main obstacle to such a development is that Unicode still does not rule the world, and dangers lurk for anyone who inserts a character outside of standard ASCII into a document — once it leaves your computer, you don't know whether ♥-shaped is going to show up on someone else's screen as ★-shaped or ↓-shaped.

A great repository of shape adjectives (along with many other delightful word lists) is the Phrontistery:

http://phrontistery.info/shapes.html

Our favorite real-world application of offbeat shape adjectives is to characterize leaves:

http://www.texastreetrails.org/leaftwigidlinks.html

Of the dozens of Unicode charts with funny shapes on them, we particularly like this one:

http://www.unicode.org/charts/PDF/U2600.pdf


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Orin Hargraves is an independent lexicographer and contributor to numerous dictionaries published in the US, the UK, and Europe. He is also the author of Mighty Fine Words and Smashing Expressions (Oxford), the definitive guide to British and American differences, and Slang Rules! (Merriam-Webster), a practical guide for English learners. In addition to writing the Language Lounge column, Orin also writes for the Macmillan Dictionary Blog. Click here to visit his website. Click here to read more articles by Orin Hargraves.

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Comments from our users:

Monday September 1st 2008, 4:39 AM
Comment by: Mike H.
In my field of endeavour we use "scaphoid" from time to time. It means "boat shaped", or shaped like a bowl, or more loosely, just concave.

Sometimes we use "platypelloid" which, I think, just means flat. As in Platypus - "flatfoot". "Flat" is far more succinct, more satisfying to articulate, and much easier to spell.
Monday September 1st 2008, 9:40 AM
Comment by: James E. (Tucson, AZ)
My favorite word is "scatophageous" to describe wolves and dogs. It means "scat-eating" where scat is literally wolf droppings. However, I generally see this visual adjective most appropriately applied to describe lawyers and politicians.
Monday September 1st 2008, 10:05 AM
Comment by: Hovannes K.
Very premature thrill! After being subdued by Editors to keep all my prose KISS and at a level of a fifth grader, (that is of a moron, lexicographically speaking!) I truly think there is a mistake here. The LA Times using such good words? Incredible.
Monday September 1st 2008, 12:34 PM
Comment by: Mike L. (Rockwell, IA)
Me thinks this hole story, is bit square.

(sarcasm and misspelling intended)

8^D
Monday September 1st 2008, 4:12 PM
Comment by: Phil S.
Here's a shape word that I've run into in two contexts:
1. I had a melanoma removed from my back about 20 years ago. The surgeon made two curved cuts that intersected at points at the top and bottom. I described it as a "lenticular" (lens-shaped) incision.
2. As moist air is forced over a mountain peak, clouds shaped like plano-convex lenses form above the peak. These are termed lenticular clouds (www.tagbanger.com/archive/lenticular-clouds/)
Monday September 1st 2008, 11:22 PM
Comment by: Ikars S.
As an academic exercise this is fascinating but I fail to see the ado about the scarce use of foreign shape-words. In all languages I know natives choose either the shorter or the more intuitive denotation. The meaning of ring-shaped is clearer than toroidal and has the simple qualifiers fat and thin, and to think toroidal is better is for the birds, because torii can be either. The suffix -shaped is totally adequate, and native speakers everywhere use short pre- and suffixes to coin new words for items/notions not already in their language. In that sense, English is a primitive/backward language and relies more than others on borrowing/incorporating foreign words most of which the large majority cannot pronounce. Not to say that English is an unattractive language. Some of the world's great poetry has been written in it.
Tuesday September 2nd 2008, 9:37 AM
Comment by: William P. (Richardson, TX)
there's cuneiform for wedge-shaped, amygdaloid for almond-shaped, stellate for star-shaped

i learned something new today!
Friday September 5th 2008, 1:17 PM
Comment by: Anica W.
Besides Greek and Latin words being used to describe shapes, there is an equal opportunity to explore Greek and Latin words that may be used to describe things such as directions, placements and relationships. In my work, which is medical in nature, I use such terms all day. Often I'll find these words slip into my daily speech as well. The amazing thing is that in most cases, the lay person with whom I am speaking doesn't seem to miss a beat. Proving in some small way that the public is capable of digesting these terms without too much upset. I was thrilled last week when a pal of mine, who is not involved in medicine, used the word obliquely to describe how he had come to a specific realization inadvertently.
Tuesday November 4th 2008, 12:35 AM
Comment by: chris P.
my group of male golfers refer to a well shaped drive as a Marilyn

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