English words which look like their meaning

So when I was learning to write English, back in the eighties, I used to mix up the symbols b and d. It’s an easy mistake to make – they’re mirror images and I had 24 other squiggles to learn.

Somebody (pretty sure it was my sister or possibly a teacher) helpfully pointed out that the word bed looks like a bed. This was a useful mental reference at the time and remained a curiosity, after the letter confusion ceased to be a problem. Since those early struggles, I have become a happy user of the handwritten English language and have been known to use it on shopping lists, correspondence and tax forms. Yay!

The word bed definitely looks like a classic bed – it has vertical posts at either side and the letter e is the centre.

Much later on I discovered the musician eYe. If you’re a fan of experimental noise music, you’ll know him as a member of cult Japanese band Boredoms. The cool thing about the word eYe is it looks like a pair of eyes with the capital letter Y representing the bridge of the nose. (Cheers to Paul for bringing it to my attention.)

I don’t know if the resemblence between eYe and a pair of eyes is deliberate. But we do know that Boredoms are not your average band, musically and when it comes to novel ideas.

The members of Boredoms are well accustomed to words which resemble their meaning. Japanese has a pictorial writing system called kanji. It also has two writing systems which are not pictorial, but kanji is our favourite today.

Examples of other writing systems which are pictorial:
Chinese
Egyptian hieroglyphics
road signs
washing symbols on garment labels
symbolic buttons on media players.

I tried to think of other examples of this, the bed phenomenon. Here are the next ones I thought of.

I

CD

poo

If the person speaking is a human rather than an animal, machine or deity then I is totally valid. It looks like a human standing up. I prefer a lower-case i because it has a little bobbly head. But you can’t write that in polite company because for some reason I’ve never understood, the personal pronoun must be upper-case. Unlike “me” which can be all lower-case. Where’s e e cummings when you need him?

CD stands for compact disc. But it also stands for a circular shiny thing in our new quest for pictorial English. Obviously the font we choose will have some effect on its resemblence to a physical CD. Can we handle the vertical line down the middle of our CD word? It could be the multi-colour rainbow shiny reflective line. Or it could be part of the “onbody” design as it’s known. I know the letter combination CD isn’t a word but it often behaves like one. It’s on the list.

Poo might cause a problem. It’s valid when it looks like three blobs, the first of which has a streaky line running off it. But not all poos look like that, as any reader of reasonable bathroom experience will know. Let’s add it to our provisional list anyway. Not all beds look like the classic bed, so no use being too strict.

By now I was having some mild fun with this. Which other English words look like their meaning? At first I assumed there would be other people demanding immediate answers to this vital question, as I was. I ran a few Google searches involving “bed”, “words which look like their meaning” and other variations. Not much relevant came up but the original fact about bed. It’s very difficult to do a web search for something if you don’t know what to call it.

Most words in English don’t look like their meaning but there are a few that do. I compiled some lists when I originally starting thinking of this.

As I said earlier, there might be some prior research in this area, but I’m not aware of it. And since I like thinking of names for things, often just for my own use, I gave this subset of English a name. If you combine English and a hieroglyph, surely you get Engglyph.

English + glyph = Engglyph

The word is unique in as much as currently there are zero results for the word Engglyph on Google. It looks foreign, which is nice.

Unfortunately the word Engglyph is not a valid Engglyph word itself. Unlike English, which is! Does English look like its meaning? I think it does. In a linguistic sense, what could be more English than the word English? So English is Engglyph.

I poo English CD. At the moment Engglyph vocabulary is looking a bit limited. But it’s not intended as a useful, complete language.

Here are some more. These are all Engglyph, without a doubt.

Four

sixish

eightish

Four has some letters of unequal shape which nonetheless are four in number. The word four in all lower-case looks different but is equally valid.

It’s a similar thing for the words above with the suffix “ish” – which has to include the precise number too. For example, if I offered you sixish apples then it could actually be six apples. Take it up with a Greek philosopher if you don’t like it. Where’s Plato when you need him?

The following are kind of smug faced ones.

word

noun

letters

These three all relate to written language. I don’t want to dwell on them because this is already getting too meta. We ain’t here for no recursive brainache, we want the pleasing elegance of Engglyph.

All Engglyph words must be nouns.

They have to physically resemble the thing. They can’t be adjectives because adjectives are merely properties of nouns. If you’re interested in words which describe themselves, look up autological words.

That’s a different exercise to Engglyph. Although still a worthwhile and rewarding pursuit. 🙂

Incidentally there are some words which are both Engglyph and autological such as word.

But let’s get back to more examples:

LINES

BOOBs

sA W

look

eels

zig zag

jUg

I am starting to cheat with some of these, by allowing dangly extra bits and streaky lines.

So zig zag has got some zig zags in the zs – but it also has a bunch of extra letters. BOOBs has three pairs of boobs. Just saying. It also has a letter s which disrupts it somewhat. I should say that look is the noun not the verb, as in “a startled look”. The letter o is an eye and the l and k are like sides of a head.

Two household things with handles are the sA W and the jUg. The handles are sA and the g respectively. The j is the spout. After some cheating with capitalisation and spacing, they just about make the list.

There may be Engglyph-style words for other non-pictorial languages (such as your French, Somali, Malay, Welsh or your German). I may get back to you on that.

73 sylw ar “English words which look like their meaning”

  1. It has been published, in 2001, by mathematician Bob Palais, that “Pi Is Wrong!” Not that the value itself is wrong, but the value that should have been symbolized is its (literal) double: 2pi; that the radius, rather than the diameter, of the unit circle, should be used to define this transcendental number: 6.28…. And the reason for that is that most of the fundamental formulas of mathematics include the explicit factor of 2 as a coefficient. But if Palais’s proposal were accepted, the explicit expression of the 2 would no longer appear, producing simpler expressions!

    The question which then arises is what would be the ideal symbol for that, and I proposed, to the recreational mathematician, Vi Hart, that it be the capital letter “O” underlined [this software does not permit underlining]. The idea is that this would express, visually, the relation of the Radios to the Unit Circle!

  2. Is it possible to combine a calligram and a autoglyph- If so, what would that word be called? Must it repeat to function? ANY TAKERS?

  3. Maya! I here you. The best I could come up with is the Neologism: “Televigraphy.”

    Does it suggest to you a fusion of the Telephone, the Television, Telegraph, the Phonograp, and Vision?

  4. LOL Ludvikus, your televigraphy term is starting to enter into McLuhan territory.
    Now- do text terms such as the above LOL somehow sign a new revolution in language and time?
    Is the English language as we know it antiquated? Are we back to a more efficient manner of communication, such as


    .-.
    .

    code?

  5. Dear Maya & Carl,
    Great Marshall McLuhan!
    “The Media is the Message”! Isn’t that about our subject?

    There’s lot’s of alleged progress with Computers and mathematics.

    The Binary system, with 0 & 1 as the only digits is a simplification improved to our numeration system of the digits 0,1,…,9.

    But for our purpose here the old, primitive tally system of the caveman would be most suitable, don’t you agree?

    0 = [nothing! not the blank ]

    1 = |

    2 = || [it’s not eleven!]

    3 = |||

    4 = ||||

    5 = |||||

    … [I’ll stop here since the cavemen could only count up to five, after that, he said “mmmmmmmmmmmmmany”]

    And that wonderful ellipsis … is it supposed to symbolize far away soundtracks going into infinity?

    PS: Does anyone one know the name of the tally symbol?

  6. Dear Maya,

    Do you find
    “Callipygous”
    (1) descriptively in possession of its own nature, as well as
    (2) self-descriptive, or you-self descriptive; or is
    “Calligyian.”

    And is it a neologism, and/or, a vulgarity,
    to say to a woman that she is extremely
    bootylicious?

    And in writing to one’s girlfriend, or wife,
    would it be even less, or more suitable
    to write to her lovingly,
    but sexually as well,
    that one finds her
    no less than J Lo,
    or Kim Kardashian,
    bOOtylicious?

    But if that offends
    consider if a

    Bactrian Camell

    is iconictically
    distinguished from a

    Dromedary Camel

    in virtue of the “D” or “B”
    on one another’s back, backs, Back, or Backs.
    Too back we don’t have “dack” or “Dack
    for that other sort
    of camel’s back.
    I’d prefer to have had
    Adam name each species simply
    Camels and Bamels
    for the sake of iconicity.

  7. Carl,

    Every word which possess iconicity
    is its own Mnemonic Device
    – helps us remember the meaning
    because it looks like its own meaning.

    What you’ve uncovered for all webers
    (my neologism for uses the WWW),
    or googlers (I dropped the C/capital)
    is that every word
    which possesses the property of iconicity
    is its own Mnemonic Device.

    So for example,
    it would be easy to remember
    that a Dromedary is one-hump Camel,
    while a Bromedary is a two-hump Camel
    (for the moment even I forgot which is which.

    Carl – I’m currently writing mathematics
    and I try to express
    “mathematical structures,” “abstract algebras,” “universal algebra”
    by having the Symbols and Concepts
    resemble their meaning.
    There’s no better word
    for that concept or notion
    than ICONICITY;
    And its you, Carl, who occupies Web space
    with the prominence of that notion informally
    on the internet!

    You’ve heard of “The Book”
    (any alleged book attributed to God
    as containing God’s words).

    Think of the Web as
    The Book of the Human Spices (homo s…).

    You, Carl, have opened the chapter on iconicity
    which goes beyond Wikipedia
    because it permits
    neologisms, poetry, and one’s own
    creative remarks and observations.

    So thank you, Carl!

  8. [I’m assume, Carl, that included in our vocabulary is the extended alphabet & symbols
    of our ASCHII character set. After all, we do have single letter words, such as “a” in “a book,” Or “I” in “I am that I am” (haecceity asserted of God].

    The Male & Female Symbols are these: http://timcourtois.files.wordpress.com/2010/11/male_female.jpg

    But the numbers were for the ancient Greeks, Even and Odd (one was not a Number):

    2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, …

    Mathematics seems to have discover the Adam and Eve of Arithmetic: 0, 1 (zero & one);

    Notice that they are also even & odd, female and male – yes, Eve comes before Adam.

    So why not take explicit notice of the Vagina Zero: O (Capital letter o), and the Penis One: I (Capital letter i).

    – oh mi God. I can’t believe it.

    Is sexism the result of the fact that zero is nothing, but God is One; but gOd is also one.

    Wherever “0” or “o” occurs we have the true Goddess,
    but in the case of 1 or I we merely have “masculine” non-plurality.

    Notice that a child is born out of a wOman, and that Man appears castrated
    – shouldn’t he rather be Iman? Or iman. OK, so he’s always masculine in the first person singular “I” I’ll exlcaim it!
    He even plays fiddle to Hymans..

    The natural numbers now begin like so: 0, 1, 2, 3, ….

    But 1 always wants to get inside of 0, or I wants to penetrate 0.

    In the beginning Adam just wanted to copulate with eve by multiplying her like so:

    1 x 0 = 0

    but as you can plainly see in the above, it just left her flat.

    Was it Satan who taught him that juxtaposition was also insufficient:

    01 = 10 because it’s really 0 x 1 = 1 x 0 = 0 – the latter disguising the same result?

    How long did it take him to learn that Eve required additional foreplay:

    Or should I say that Eve required of Adam the foreplay of addition like so
    to produce the result of pleasure, without knowing who the resulting one would really be:

    0 + 1 = 1 + 0 = 1 (not zero! Erika).

    But it was not until the 19th century when Peano conceived,

    the Sneaky & Snaky Successor Operator S applied to Adam alone (being the 1st to master bating):

    S(1) = 2 (an even, feminine daughter, but no son or Eve).

    Not long thereafter Eve too (not two) realized that could do it alone
    – with the great fringe benefit of creating him like so:

    S(0) = 1 (a odd, masculine son, or Adam).

    The moral of this story, is its conclusion, that 0 precedes 1 in our enumeration, as well as our binary system:

    0, 1, 2, 3, 4, …. & 0, 1, 10, 11, 100, 101, 110, 111, …

  9. The horse, is a horse, of course, that also looks like a “horse.”
    But what if it vs. the “iron-horse” when it’s in Jenny’s professor’s locomotion?
    Choo, choo, …

  10. Hi all, thanks for all the comments, it’s been entertaining and I appreciate them all. This is among the most popular posts on the blog. But I feel now that my ability to host this conversation has run its course so I’m turning off comments on this post. If someone wants to carry on the conversation on their own blog or online space feel free. Don’t forget this post is covered by Creative Commons so as long as you credit it you can re-use it around the web to talk about words which look like their meaning – or anything you like (a link to the post is probably best – it should generate a pingback here).

Sylwadau wedi cau.