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I've seen this type of phrase used in many different contexts to mean "something with the form of an object but lacking substance or quality".

Examples:

  • Wal-Mart bikes are sometimes called "bike-shaped objects" in the cyclist world for their tendency to break down
  • Valve at one point referred to fake/scam games on Steam as "game-shaped objects"

I tried doing a google ngram search for "*_NOUN shaped object", but it only came back with "disc shaped object", "cone shaped object", etc., suggesting those are referring to the actual shape and not using it as a derogatory remark.

Can anyone find the origin (or an early usage) of this phrase with the given meaning?

  • It just seems like a general form of sarcasm. – Barmar Mar 13 at 19:16
  • Related question specifically about bicycle-shaped objects at bicycles.se. Unusually, "bicycle" is rarely shortened to "bike" in this phrase, though it's rather formal otherwise. – Chris H Mar 14 at 8:13
  • If anyone is in a position to follow up on my comment under the accepted answer to that question, it could provide a partial answer. – Chris H Mar 14 at 8:17
  • @Barmar Sure, but someone must have coined it, and I'm interested in what the context was – Patrick N Mar 14 at 12:22
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    @PatrickN Identifying coiners for idioms like this is rarely possible, it's like trying to identify the inventors of children's games like Tag. They arise organically in communities, and often don't show up in written form for years. It sounds like the kind of thing that geeks and nerds come up with, but I could be biased because that's the community I spent much of my life with. – Barmar Mar 14 at 14:51
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One early negative use of '[something]-shaped' is from Coleridge's letters:

man-shaped, adj.
1801 S. T. Coleridge Let. 31 Oct. (1956) II. 772 Old Symes—i.e. a Man-shaped animal capable of 'a deep malignant Rage'.

OED, paywalled.

Earlier uses of '[something]-shaped' for invective certainly exist. For example, in The Gentleman's and London magazine of May 1756 (p. 265), the reviewer remarking the "List of Books Published" says, about A Satyrical Review of the Manifold Falshoods and Absurdities Hitherto Published, Concerning the Earthquake at Lisbon,

—This writer takes occasion from the various mistakes that have happened in the accounts of the late earthquake to abuse in more scurrilous terms than perhaps were ever printed before, all who have contributed to lay them before the publick. He calls them "dastardly mongrel insects, scribbling incendiaries, starveling savages, human-shaped tygers, senseless yelping curs, blushless caitiffs, common plunderers, ....

Early uses in invective are related to contemporary derogatory uses of the extended phrase '[something]-shaped object'.


Although the epithet was undoubtedly in use earlier, "piano-shaped object" and its initialism "PSO" was in use by Juilliard students prior to 1979:

...these [Juilliard] students have a pleasantly ironic way of talking (a "PSO," for example, is a "piano-shaped object," the kind of inferior instrument most pianists have to play on most of the time)....

— From a book review of Pianist's Progress (1979, Helen Ruth Ruttencutter) in The Boston Globe, Boston, Massachusetts, 30 Oct 1979, p. 40 (paywalled).

So derogatory use of '[something]-shaped object', accompanied by a suitable initialism, is student slang from more than 40 years ago.

Even earlier, and perhaps the source of the student slang at Juilliard, "piano-shaped object" (without the "PSO" initialism) shows up in a 1953 book by Lady Joy Petersen Packer, Apes and Ivory:

A few hours later he would be anxiously trying some "piano-shaped object" in Worcester, wondering, no doubt, whether he could hope to find it properly tuned and the notes in no way afflicted with rheumatism.

  • I'm not sure if "man-shaped animal" quite has the same meaning, but "piano-shaped object" fits perfectly (and also has the connotation, common to most usages, of the difference between the real item and the item-shaped object only being discernable by an expert) – Patrick N Mar 15 at 12:20

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