"[In] any way, shape, or form" is a rhetorical idiom, in which shape and form tend to function as intensifiers. It is normally used for emphasis where the non-idiomatic phrases "[in] any way" or "[in] any form" would have been sufficient, and perhaps clearer. It is reliably attested at least as far back as 1826 (Colonial Times), already as a fully-formed idiom. Since this source is a provincial newspaper that can hardly have been responsible for popularizing the phrase, it must already have been in use before that time. However, I could not find any discussion whatsoever regarding its origins.

Earlier examples are found (around the 1790s) of the phrase in any shape, having much the same meaning, in both British and American usage (Mornington; Washington). However, this seems to have disappeared in later usage and been supplanted by the modern three-term form, which may have originated about 1800. Examples of both phrases are found during the 19th century, but afterwards most further usage of in any shape by itself seems either to mean a literal shape, or the sense of shape meaning condition, e.g. "not in any shape to/for [...]". Etymonline suggests (Etymonline) that the latter arose about 1865 in AmE, and so cannot have influenced the earlier usage. Thus it seems that the inclusion of shape in the idiom may have been motivated by the existence of the phrase in any shape, using a sense of the word that was seemingly current in the 18th century but had become obsolete by the 20th.

No dictionaries that I consulted included any clear description or origin for the modern idiom, only mentioning that it is indeed an idiom and offering usage examples. I also could not find any detail about the sense of shape employed in the phrase in any shape: Webster notes in 1828 (Webster) a sense of shape meaning manner, but no further detail is given.

If one understands any way, shape, or form straightforwardly, its emphatic intent is seemingly obscured, rather than strengthened, by the inclusion of what appears to modern speakers as an inappropriate or irrelevant term. My impression is that shape, specifically, is seldom, if ever, appropriate in any current context in which this idiom is used. It could be argued that the emphasis now comes from the contrast between the modern meanings of the various alternatives offered, but if so, it would presumably be understood that at least one of them is usually contextually inappropriate and the phrase is a rather self-conscious cliché.

So, I would like to ask: when and how did this sense of shape originate, and what led it to be displaced by the modern idiom also including way and form? Was the resulting three-term phrase always an essential pleonasm, or are there any attested, or at least reasonably plausible, cases in which way, shape and form are simultaneously applicable without being redundant, in either their original or modern senses?


Colonial Times and Tasmanian Advertiser. Vol. 11, no. 528: Hobart Town, Tasmania. 16th June 1826. Print.

Richard Wellesley, 2nd Earl of Mornington. Letter to Henry Dundas, Fort St. George, 7th June 1799. In The Despatches, Minutes, and Correspondence, of the Marquess Wellesley, K. G.: During His Administration in India, Volume 2, Montgomery Martin, Ed. London: Wm. H. Allen. 35. Print.

George Washington. Letter to Mary Washington, Mount Vernon, 15th February 1787. In The Writings of George Washington from the Original Manuscript Sources 1745–1799, Volume 29, September 1, 1786–June 19, 1788, John C. Fitzpatrick, Ed. Washington, D.C.: Library of Congress, 1939. 160. Print.

Douglas Harper. "Shape", entry in Online Etymology Dictionary. Accessed 21st November 2015. Available: http://www.etymonline.com/index.php?term=shape

Noah Webster. "Shape", entry in An American Dictionary of the English Language. New Haven, Connecticut, 1828. Republished as Webster's Dictionary 1828 - Online Edition. Accessed 21st November 2015. Available: http://webstersdictionary1828.com/Dictionary/shape

  • Sometimes it is phrased, "Any way, shape, form, or fashion," which only adds insult to injury--so to speak. – GMB Jun 8 '14 at 23:13
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    I have heard this expression used often and have usually associated it with people trying to make a point emphatically. I have considered it to be a stock phrase that some people use when they want to convey an extreme denial: "I have not failed to apply company policy in any way, shape, or form." Although I have not kept a tally, it seems I have heard it used more by people with military or law enforcement backgrounds. Here is an essay on the phrase. niquette.com/books/101words/wayshape.htm#topofart – GMB Jun 9 '14 at 1:46
  • If someone did not like this question, would they be kind enough to specify what they did not like about it to justify the downvote? If the problem is insufficient research, then I invite you to find any reliable or authoritative reference anywhere to the origins of this phrase, or any description of it in any dictionary that amounts to more than simply describing it as an informal idiom. It is very hard to show evidence of thorough research when that research did not return any useful results whatsoever. This was extremely surprising to me given how common the phrase is. – Oleksandr R. Nov 21 '15 at 15:17
  • What precisely do you not understand about the etymology of shape? – Hot Licks Nov 21 '15 at 19:03
  • @HotLicks when and how the sense of shape meaning manner arose, and when it became obsolete only to persist in the idiom any way, shape, or form. It seems to me that this sense was never very common and that in any shape may have been an idiom as well. There is also the idiom any shape, manner, or form, which seems to have competed with in any way, shape, or form for a while. – Oleksandr R. Nov 21 '15 at 19:06

Can't help you with the origin of the phrase, but I suggest a more accurate rhetorical term for the phrase is MERISM.

Think of a merism as the counterpart to synecdoche, since both figures of speech concern parts and wholes. Synecdoche can be a

  • part to whole substitution, as in "All hands on deck!" When the ship captain gives that order, he doesn't expect a bunch of severed hands to show up on deck. "Hands," therefore, is a part to the whole, the substitution of a body part for the whole body. In like fashion, when someone requests that you "count noses," they're asking you to take attendance, not to literally count proboscises! The nose--a part--is a substitute for the whole person.

  • whole to a part substitution, as in "In my rearview mirror I could see the law as he approached my stopped car, and I could tell he was going to give me a speeding ticket." Here we have the whole, in this case "the law," substituting for the part; namely, a cop, or a state trooper, or an officer of the law.

Merism, on the other hand, expresses

  • a totality--the whole--through contrasting parts, as in "The competition was open to all comers, both young and old and everyone in-between." Or, "Then the LORD God said, 'Behold, the man has become like one of Us, knowing good and evil' . . ." (Genesis 3:22a). Or, "She packed up all her possessions in record time: lock, stock, and barrel," meaning all, total, everything. (That merism may have had its genesis in the letters of Sir Walter Scott in, circa 1817.)

Merisms frequently figure in the writing of lawyers, and are a hallmark of legal style. The two parts of the legal merism "Last Will and Testament" at one time referred to two documents, enforced in two separate courts: the will disposed of a decedent's real property while the testament disposed of chattels. It became customary to combine the instruments in a single dispositive document, and the name has continued long after the doctrines that required its use became obsolete in common law.

A lawyer who writes a will typically includes a residuary clause that disposes of any property not covered by a prior section. The weight of tradition is such that the lawyer writing such a document will often phrase it something like this:

"I bequeath, convey, and devise the rest, residue, and remainder of my property, real or personal, and wheresoever it may be situated, to Sally Jones, of 456 Elm Street, Hanover, Massachusetts."

While the inclusion of merisms in a legal document might give the people who are paying the lawyer $400 an hour the feeling they're getting their money's worth, it does virtually nothing to make a given writing (or document) somehow "more legal"! Merisms also tend to obfuscate, rather than elucidate, a writing.

Some merisms were introduced during the period when Norman French words were being absorbed into English. In order to assure that a document was clear to both Normans and Saxons, it was desirable to use both the Saxon-root and French-root synonyms for important words, to avoid a pretext for someone to claim a misunderstanding.

Perhaps researching your "way, shape, or form" as a merism might go a long way toward finding out who was the first person to use the expression.

In conclusion, I did come across a modern use of your expression from Stefan Constantinescu's website IntoMobile, from Friday, November 27th, 2009.

"Walter Cronkite, the man, is in no way, shape, or form similar to Twitter, the medium"

Best wishes, and happy hunting!

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    Many thanks for your enlightening comments and helpful suggestion. This is certainly a plausible theory for how the phrase might have originated, and to learn something of the history of merisms in legal usage is very interesting. +1, of course! – Oleksandr R. Jun 9 '14 at 1:02
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    Too good to -1, but not an answer. – Edwin Ashworth Jun 9 '14 at 7:23
  • @OleksandrR.: You're welcome, I'm sure, even though my answer is not, strictly speaking, an answer, as Edwin Ashworth points out. Don – rhetorician Jun 10 '14 at 0:21

However, my impression is that shape, specifically, is seldom, if ever, appropriate in any context in which this idiom is used.

Some definitions include, A specific form or guise assumed by someone or something: and The specified condition or state of someone or something:.

There are other senses that are now obsolete or rare, that work with the expression too, such as how it was used in Tyndale's translation of Rom. 12:2

But be ye chaunged in youre shape, by the renuynge of youre wittes.

There are a few others. In all, the sense survives in the pleonasm, such as the wrack of "wrack and ruin". Like many such pleonasms it emphasises the completeness of expression.

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'Way' is the misfit here - 'shape' 'form' and 'fashion' are more-or-less synonymous. However, in the example above, concering company policy, 'way' adds a different perspective: 'I have not [broken] company policy in any way' is clear enough, but '...company policy in any shape...' concerns nuances and interpretations of the policy, none of which have been broken.

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  • What, then, is the "shape" of a policy? Would you describe policies as having different shapes, if the interpretation can differ? I think this is far too obscure and contrived. – Oleksandr R. Nov 21 '15 at 15:03

I doubt this phrase began as an idiom, although I agree that it is used perhaps idiomatically by the public. More accurately, this phrase is probably a simple misuse of language that has had and can have a logical use.

The origin could be a specific legal use. Patent protection perhaps. Law requires precise and complete language to be useful, but sometimes legal phrases are parroted by the general public, obscuring the original meaning. "He does not have a leg to stand on" is one such example. The legal idea of "standing" is related, but missing limbs are not a part of that idea when lawyers argue whether a particular plaintiff has legal standing to bring an action against the named defendant(s).

Here is a close example of your phrase being used in a legal context:

"and long before it began making its stop and stop and waste cocks in the shape or form that it now makes them. [...] and has since continued to make the handle and cap of its stop, and stop and waste cocks in that shape or form ever since; and with its trade-mark impressed upon the body of the cock they are not readily distinguishable from the complainant's goods of that class." p.148 The Trade Mark Record, Volume 33, No. 1150, Nov 19, 1908. Google Books Electronic Version

I speculate that a court could order that a defendant with an infringing product is forbidden from introducing that product into the stream of commerce in any way (not by bartering, nor selling wholesale or retail, nor causing it to be sold by a third party), shape (it is no defense to a violation if the defendant merely reshapes the product slightly), or form (if defendant has produced multiple versions of the product, all of those forms are included in the ban, plus any additional versions/forms the defendant might subsequently produce). This final condition potentially overlaps the second condition, but it serves to make the prohibition more complete, arguably.

edit: I encountered another legal source using this phrasing. On page 209 it discusses spark plug design: Reports of Cases in Law and Equity

The questions being addressed by the court are: (1) In what way is the product being introduced into the commerce stream? And in what way is the mark being used?

(2) What is the method of manufacturing?

(3) What is the shape of the product? e.g. a tapering cylinder, specific dimensions in Exhibit A

(4) What is the form of the spark plug product? e.g. a cadmium single electrode resistor ignition coil, or a copper tipped magneto resistor plug

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