EVEN MORE WORDS
Anadiplosis (Devices V)
Paronomasia et al
Symploce et al.
Legal Words I
Legal Words II
Legal Words III
Bill Long 5/26/05
Getting the Words Straight
I have to confess that as I was studying the dictionary in preparation for the upcoming National Senior Spelling Bee, I began to run across a few words describing shapes of objects, and I stopped in my tracks and said that I just had to makea list of a few dozen of these terms and learn what they meant. I am tired or hearing others, and myself, describe things as "sorta round" or "kinda square." Surely there must be a richer vocabulary of description. And, indeed, there is. But, as I studied the words, I found that the vocabulary was so rich that I wondered whether several of the words really were identical, and it was like five people all having row 28C in a flight across the country. Well, you decide. Here is a list of about 35 terms, with very brief definitions.
Getting in "Shape"
Well, let's see what we have. Why not start with some "pointed" words? We have acuminate, meaning "pointed, tapered or tapering to a point." It also is related to the word acumen, which we all have used on one occasion or another, to describe a person of "sharp" intellect. Acuminate doesn't seem to be so different from aculeate, which means "pointed, incisive, stinging," but usually aculeate refers to insects equipped with stingers. What I always look for and love, however, is the way that words can be loosed from their scientific contexts and be freed up for humanistic use. For example, taking aculeate to mean "incisive," we have this 1693 quotation: "Any Aculeate Animadversions...on particular Expressions."*
[*By the way, the word animadversion, which the Collegiate only defines as "a critical censorious remark" or "adverse criticism," was used much more broadly in 1693 than today. The Latin verb animadverto means, primarily, "to direct the mind toward, pay attention to, or heed." The original English meaning, is "the action of turning the attention to a subject; the observation or consideration of anything." Francis Bacon, the polymath of the late 16th-early 17th century, could say, "I have no meaning...to make any exact animadversion of the errors and impediments in matters of learning." Though the use of the term as criticism also goes back to the end of the 16th century, it swallowed up the general sense of turning one's attention to or observing by the middle of the 18th century. I, for one, would love to bring back the broader meaning of the term as "observation," or "turning the attention to" or "criticism." The context would make it clear which is meant. Or, maybe the context would make it ambiguous. But, who is against removing all ambiguity in langauge? Life, and love, wouldn't be quite as interesting if we tried to remove all ambiguity.]
We have other "sharp" terms. Let's continue with lanceolate. The OED defines it as "resembling a spear-head in shape; narrow and tapering to each end." We not only can have a lanceolate leaf or branch, but we can also use the word in architecture, to describe a tapering window or arch. One definition from 1760 has it: "Spear-shaped; when the Figure is oblong, narrowing gradually at each End toward the Extremity." But here is where we run into a problem, because I found another term, fusiform, which is also defined as "tapering to both ends." The OED defines fusiform as "Spindle-shaped; tapering from the middle toward each end." Then it mentions that such a word is used in Botany, Entomology and Zoology. Oops. Another term, from Scribner's in 1887, "This torpedo...is fusiform, or cigar-shaped." The example frequently given of a fusiform object is a radish. So, we have four words to describe "tapering at both ends": lanceolate, fusiform, spindle-shaped and cigar-shaped. But, probably only in Havana would one have considered the last one a techical term.
A Brief Digression
I couldn't help diverting my attention momentarily to the Oxford Latin Dictionary in order to understand the word fusiform. A fusus was a "rod, weighted at the lower end, on which, as it rotated, yarn was twisted into a thread and wound." That is, a fusus is a spindle. The second definition is interesting. It is the "spindle" on which the Fates were supposed to spin the thread of a person's life. The thread which is spun by the Fates is known as the filum. Thus, we will run into something that is filiform later in this essay or, probably, in the next essay. But filum is to be differentiated from filix, which is the generic name for a fern, and which has bequeathed the word filicology, the study of ferns, to the English language. Oh, by the way, the study of ferns is also known as pteridology. The reason it is that the latter is the Greek-derived term while the former is Latin-derived. the latter is earlier and more frequently attested (beginning in the 1840s) while the latter only appears in the 1880s. The English even had a British Pteridological Society. Well, would you have expected anything less from the Brits? Just as America in the 1980s had "bagels on the brain," it appears that the British had ferns on the brain in the 19th century. The Century even attests the usage of pteridomania, which is defined as "a mania or excessive enthusiasm in regard to ferns." Kingsley wrote, "Your daughters, perhaps, have the prevailing pteridomania, and are collecting and buying ferns." I bet you never knew this.
Returning to Lanceolate
But we really cannot escape from lanceolate so quickly. The OED lists a host of terms that signify "between lanceolate and...." That is, a leaf or fern or branch or ear or something is not perfectly shaped like a lance (whatever the perfect lance would look like). It could be "part lance" and "part something else." So, the OED tells us that there is lanceolate-subulate and lanceolate-hastate and lanceolate-acute linear. As if 35 "shape terms" are not enough! Well, as you can see, I have just opened another can of worms. The only way to deal with it is to continue to review terms, hoping to make some sense of it all in the process.
Copyright © 2004-2008 William R. Long