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Onomatopoeia is defined as:

The formation of a word from a sound associated with what is named (e.g. cuckoo, sizzle).

Is there a term for describing the formation of a word from a shape/image associated with what is named; and/or a word so formed?

The oldest word like that I can think of would be

delta

A triangular tract of sediment deposited at the mouth of a river, typically where it diverges into several outlets:

Origin: Mid 16th century: originally specifically as the Delta (of the River Nile), from the shape of the Greek letter

The newest I can think of would be XOXO (O and X are crude visual representations of a hug and a kiss respectively). I know it's arguably not a word, still...

Then we have words like U-turn, T-bone and V-neck, which are named after the shape of the letter (as against words like X-rays, A-team and B-boying)

Is there any term that describes words like this?

PS - If there isn't, neologisms are welcome in comments.

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  • 1
    Don't forget I-beam and U-channel.
    – Catija
    Commented Jun 2, 2015 at 8:10
  • 1
    Coming up with a neologism is going to be tricky, because the original Greek literally translates to "the making of a name or word." The closest I can get is "morphonoma," which is roughly "shape-word." (Or "onomatomorph," if morphonoma sounds too much like a disease for you. Commented Jun 2, 2015 at 9:14
  • 1
    I guess "boxing ring" fails.
    – pazzo
    Commented Jun 2, 2015 at 9:17
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    But isn't the Pentagon named the Pentagon because it is a pentagon, not just takes the form of a pentagon? Same for baseball diamond. IOW, we call a circle a circle because it is a circle, don't we?
    – pazzo
    Commented Jun 2, 2015 at 9:19
  • 3
    Onomatopoeia is an imitative act, whereas giving the name crescent to a crescent-shaped area is simply to call a spade a spade. Maybe the word should be limited to naming things after the shapes of letters in the alphabet?
    – TimR
    Commented Jun 2, 2015 at 10:00

6 Answers 6

8

They are simply called shape words.

It is mentioned in Jeff Miller's Collection of Word Oddities and Trivia; and coined by Dan Tilque:

Dan Tilque has compiled a list of what he calls "shape words," terms in English that are composed of a single letter and a word (or two), where the letter describes the shape of the object.

He attempts to show one word for each letter of the alphabet, but several letters are missing. His list: A-frame, C-clamp, D ring, f-hole, F clamp, G clamp, H hinge, I beam, J-bar lift, K truss, K-turn, L square, M roof, O-ring, P trap, S curve, T-shirt, T-intersection, T-bone, T-square, U-turn, V neck, W-engine, X truss, Y theodolite, and Z bar. [Mark Brader and Phil Jacknis added to Dan's list.]

Language Log mentions the same source and adds that formal documents used such terms freely. It is also mentioned that other languages have similar words. For example, in Chinese, there are shapes that correspond to Chinese characters.

十字路口, a "十 intersection", refers to a four-way intersection (or just any intersection). The phrase is based entirely on the shape of the character, and not the meaning (十 means ten in Chinese).

Further details for Chinese characters: https://chinese.stackexchange.com/questions/1805/words-referring-to-the-shape-of-chinese-characters

It is also described as using letter shapes as analogies in A Biography of English Language by C.M.Willmard:

enter image description here

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  • XOXO might be an exception but there is no reason not to call it a shape word.
    – ermanen
    Commented Jun 2, 2015 at 19:42
  • What about delta?
    – Tushar Raj
    Commented Jun 2, 2015 at 19:44
  • @TusharRaj: Hmm I missed that one but I think "delta" is not exactly in the same category as others. But again, you can still call it a "shape word" :) It is not represented with an English letter but as a whole word. (and the word is the name of a letter in Greek alphabet).
    – ermanen
    Commented Jun 2, 2015 at 19:46
  • I think I'll have to. But the 'what he calls shape words' part troubles me. It's like the author's saying: "Don't look at me. His term, not mine." Anyway, upvoted.
    – Tushar Raj
    Commented Jun 2, 2015 at 19:51
  • @TusharRaj: Thanks. Well, someone coined it; but we can extend the meaning. A neologism may also be a new usage of an existing word (semantic extension).
    – ermanen
    Commented Jun 2, 2015 at 20:00
6

The word phenomime can be used for words that act like onomatopoeia (also known as phonomimes) for non-auditory sensory stimuli (the other four senses). They are quite common in Japanese, which also has psychomimes (words that act like onomatopoeia for emotions, thought processes, states of mind).

  • Phonomimes use word sounds to represent auditory stimuli, such as a bark, a meow, or a honk.
  • Phenomimes use word sounds to represent non-auditory stimuli, such as a flash, a twinkle, or a grope.
  • Psychomimes use word sounds to represent psychological stimuli, such as the pitter-pat of a quickened heart, dizziness, or reluctance.
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2

I believe you are referring to metaphorical names. Many anatomical terms are formed this way. For instance, the piriformis muscle is so named because it is "pear-shaped," and the trapezius muscle is shaped like a trapezoid. Many more everyday terms are formed the same way, such as "crescent roll," which resembles the shape of the crescent moon. There is a list on Wikipedia here:

Glossary of shapes with metaphorical names

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  • 1
    Hi user. Thanks for answering. Unfortuanately, you seem to have misunderstood the question. I'm not looking for names of shapes. 'Metaphorical names', if that's what your answer is, is too broad.
    – Tushar Raj
    Commented Jun 2, 2015 at 14:31
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The closest I can come for

a word from a shape/image associated with what is named

is

Hieroglyphyc from

Hieroglyph: a picture or symbol representing an object, concept, or sound

or, even simpler, you could say that the written form of the word is figurative

representing by means of an emblem, likeness, figure, etc

(painting, sculpture) of, relating to, or characterized by the naturalistic representation of the external world

For example, a U-turn is in the shape of what it is represented.

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  • Thanks P. But Hieroglyphs are representations of objects or sounds, very much like letters/symbols/icons. I'm looking for an umbrella term for objects named after shapes. Not quite the same thing.
    – Tushar Raj
    Commented Jun 2, 2015 at 16:56
  • I like this, even if some might feel it is off topic. This answer simply describes visual representations of visual objects, the same way as onomatopoetica is audible representation of sounds. The question really asks us to compare apples with oranges.
    – jumps4fun
    Commented Aug 15, 2019 at 14:21
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Ever seen a picture of Union General Ambrose Burnside? We could use the eponym "Burnside" for such words.

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  • Your answer could be improved with additional supporting information. Please edit to add further details, such as citations or documentation, so that others can confirm that your answer is correct. You can find more information on how to write good answers in the help center.
    – Community Bot
    Commented Feb 14, 2023 at 20:35
  • Hello, Dewey. What the comment above implies is that, for words and phrases, D-I-Y suggestions are off-topic as ELU looks at verifiable usage. Commented Jul 3, 2023 at 14:01
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I’m going to suggest morphograph.

morpho- from the Greek for “shape”

-graph from the Greek for ”writing”

Morphography would be the process of writing words in the shape of what they represent.

e.g. CaMeL

2
  • Your answer could be improved with additional supporting information. Please edit to add further details, such as citations or documentation, so that others can confirm that your answer is correct. You can find more information on how to write good answers in the help center.
    – Community Bot
    Commented Jul 3, 2023 at 12:43
  • Hello, NP. What the comment above implies is that, for words and phrases, D-I-Y suggestions are off-topic as ELU looks at verifiable usage. Commented Jul 3, 2023 at 14:01

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