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18 Fancy Words for Specific Shapes

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Circle, square, triangle—boring! There are so many more shapes than those in nature. Good thing there’s a rich vocabulary of fancy scientific words for shapes. Most of them don’t get much use, which is a shame. Get to know a few of these, and describe your world with lexical flair.

1. Acicular // Needle shaped

This word is used by botanists to describe leaves with a long pointy shape and by mineralogists in talking about crystals.

2. Acetabuliform // Saucer shaped

Harvard.edu

Occasionally useful in botany or geology. Your hip socket also goes by “acetabulum.”

3. Anguilliform // Eel shaped

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Anguilliform locomotion—forward movement caused by sideways undulation—is fascinating to physicists.

4. Calceiform // Slipper shaped

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Some flower petals are calceiform—they look like little shoes. Not to be confused with calciform (shaped like pebbles).

5. Clithridiate // Keyhole shaped

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Not much seen outside of 19th century descriptions of invertebrate fossils, but fun to say.

6. Cochleate // Snail shaped

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Plant parts or chemical compounds can be cochleate—rolled into a spiral like a snail shell. Also cochleate, the spiral tube in your inner ear known as the cochlea.

7. Fabiform // Bean shaped

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Here’s a good sentence from a 1909 book on rocks: “iron often inclines to the pisiform and fabiform.” (Pisiform means pea shaped.)

8. Falcate // Sickle shaped

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The butterfly known as the Falcate Orangetip has wings that curve and taper to a pointed tip.

9. Flabellate // Fan shaped

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Insects with flabellate antennae look like they have two little fans attached to their head. If you prefer Greek roots over Latin, another word for this is rhipidate.

10. Hastate // Spearhead shaped

Missouri Plants

Leaves or anatomical structures that look like spearheads are hastate, from the Latin hasta for spear.

11. Hippocrepiform // Horseshoe shaped

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Here’s a convenient word for horseshoe shaped … that takes just as long to say as “shaped like a horseshoe.”

12. Hordeiform // Barleycorn shaped

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If it looks like a grain of barley, it’s hordeiform.

13. Ichthyomorphic // Fish shaped

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Goldfish crackers aren’t fish, but they are ichthyomorphic.

14. Lachrymiform // Tear shaped 

André Karwath

Apple seeds and watermelon seeds are lachrymiform.

15. Reniform // Kidney shaped

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Kidney beans may be reniform, but actual kidneys are fabiform.

16. Scaphoid // Boat shaped

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The most commonly broken bone in the wrist, the scaphoid, looks like a little boat.

17. Scyphoid // Cup shaped

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The ancient Greek skyphos, a two handled drinking vessel, gives its name to cup-shaped objects such as jellyfish, of the biological class Scyphozoa.

18. Xiphoid // Sword shaped

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From the Greek xiphos for sword. If you prefer Latin roots, there’s ensiform (from Latin ensis). The little piece of pointy cartilage at the bottom of your sternum where the lowest ribs meet is called the xiphoid process.

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Big Questions
Where Does the Phrase '… And the Horse You Rode In On' Come From?
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Horses may no longer be the dominant form of transportation in the U.S., but the legacy of our horseback-riding history lives on in language. When telling people off, we still use the phrase “... and the horse you rode in on.” These days, it’s rare for anyone you're telling to go screw themselves to actually be an equestrian, so where did “and the horse you rode in on” come from, anyway?

Well, let’s start with the basics. The phrase is, essentially, an intensifier, one typically appended to the phrase “F*** you.” As the public radio show "A Way With Words" puts it, it’s usually aimed at “someone who’s full of himself and unwelcome to boot.” As co-host and lexicographer Grant Barrett explains, “instead of just insulting you, they want to insult your whole circumstance.”

The phrase can be traced back to at least the 1950s, but it may be even older than that, since, as Barrett notes, plenty of crude language didn’t make it into print in the early 20th century. He suggests that it could have been in wide use even prior to World War II.

In 1998, William Safire of The New York Times tracked down several novels that employed the term, including The Friends of Eddie Coyle (1972) and No Bugles, No Drums (1976). The literary editor of the latter book, Michael Seidman, told Safire that he heard the term growing up in the Bronx just after the Korean War, leading the journalist to peg the origin of the phrase to at least the late 1950s.

The phrase has had some pretty die-hard fans over the years, too. Donald Regan, who was Secretary of the Treasury under Ronald Reagan from 1981 through 1984, worked it into his official Treasury Department portrait. You can see a title along the spine of a book in the background of the painting. It reads: “And the Horse You Rode In On,” apparently one of Regan’s favorite sayings. (The book in the painting didn't refer to a real book, but there have since been a few published that bear similar names, like Clinton strategist James Carville’s book …and the Horse He Rode In On: The People V. Kenneth Starr and Dakota McFadzean’s 2013 book of comics Other Stories And the Horse You Rode In On.)

It seems that even in a world where almost no one rides in on a horse, insulting a man’s steed is a timeless burn.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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language
How to Say Merry Christmas in 26 Different Languages
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“Merry Christmas” is a special greeting in English, since it’s the only occasion we say “merry” instead of “happy.” How do other languages spread yuletide cheer? Ampersand Travel asked people all over the world to send in videos of themselves wishing people a “Merry Christmas” in their own language, and while the audio quality is not first-rate, it’s a fun holiday-themed language lesson.

Feel free to surprise your friends and family this year with your new repertoire of foreign-language greetings.

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