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:
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.




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 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.




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:



sA W



zig zag


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. Onomamikroprepis.

    This is the word I have just coined for a word that looks like it sounds. From the Greek ‘onoma’ meaning ‘name’ and ‘mikroprepis’ meaning ‘to mean’. Unfortunately onomamikroprepis is not onomamikroprepistic.

    Or perhaps onomebleva from ‘onoma’ and ‘ebleva’ meaning ‘to look’.

    Or even onomamoiazo from ‘onoma’ and ‘moiazo’ meaning ‘to resemble’.

    I like the syllables of words that derive from Greek.

  2. Also, if you look at the waveform of a recording of someone saying the word ‘fish’, it looks just like a fish. Spooky. I feel a Dan Brown style novel concerning the mystical significance of this coming on…

  3. CD could be interpreted as a CD being removed from a sleeve.

    A few years ago I looked into examples of a related idea, which I called “Autologlyphs”. For these you’re allowed to write the letters really however you want in order to describe the word, to the extent that it can be difficult to read the word. With Engglyphs the game seems to be that the word is written in standard ASCII.

    The examples I did often got pretty mathematical, although here’s a good non-mathematical example: http://www.segerman.org/autologlyphs/entropy.gif
    And the rest of them: http://www.segerman.org/autologlyphs.html

    Some of these ideas are also similar to autological numbers:


  4. ‘plop’ is most definitely onomamoiazic. Like the big, bassy splash of a large flat rock into a river pool in cross section.

  5. I remember a teacher telling us that “gwely” in Welsh looks like a ‘gwely’ (bed.) I’m not sure about the ‘l’ sticking up about 4/5 of the way down, but if it counts it’s interesting that what’s signified by ‘bed’ in English is slightly different to what’s signified by ‘gwely’ in Welsh.

  6. Ok, you cheated on a lot of these. Since when do eels have a fin? Regardless, I found two more animals that look like their words:


  7. OK looks like a sideways person…usually one is either referring to their own or someone else’s feelings I.E. a person…..probably doesn’t count but I just thought it’s pretty cool.


    ^That is Bob^

  8. Though “researching” analogies, browsing fruitlessly through the few pages containing both the words “quisling” and “finlandization” I stumbled upon your post.

    You give a highly enjoyable and succinct narrative(?) to an extremely complex and intriguing aspect of language…

    Stop rambling, thank the nice man… 😉


  9. Does anyone know if there is a term for the drawing of a word that actually looks like what the word means? For example, drawing the word “melt” melting down the page?

  10. In german, the word “Schwalbe” (as well as its english equivalent “swallow”) permits the “w” to draw the tail, whereas “sch” represents one wing and “albe” the other one. Because the point is the tail ! Sorry but the joke works only in french !


  11. Hi again ! I’m a primary teacher in France and I
    just tried to work about these “autologyphs” with
    pupils aged from 10 to 11. It worked very well !
    Some found original solutions in french (like
    parapluie, chien, crayon…), some found good
    things in german (hund), some found new things
    in english (foot, cup).
    I will keep on searching with them a few days.
    Using the classroom brainstorming as a laboratory
    can increase the number of discoveries pretty fast !
    By the way, I’m also interested in music : actually, I play mouth harp under the pseudonym
    harpacat (it remembers the album Harp Attack with an inversion of sounds). I also invented
    an autologlyph with the word “l’harmonica” (i.e. the mouth harp in french) and with my own
    surname (which is another name for cat in french and represents naturally a cat).
    I find it very interesting to increase this way
    the pupils’ vocabulary in a foreign language and I’m going to search on… (I’m both teaching german and english at school and that’s what I prefer to teach !)

  12. Pupils of mine, quite geniously, invented new
    autologlyphs like “chaise” (english chair) or
    “toilette” or “Charly” with his first name.
    I’m looking for some others in the domain “animals”. Crocodile, snake is easy…
    Meet you later ! (Alligator !)


  13. I’m in Philosophy by training. And I discovered you precisely because of a Google search. I knew that there was a word coined for the phenomena of onomatopoeia (a word which mimics the sound that that it means), but I wasn’t sure if there was one for the phenomena regarding the relation of a words mean to resembling it. You should have the honor of coining the term for it. My interest in this is due to my developing a modern system of geometry in which there is this PICTURING as Ludwig Wittgenstein had used the term. So I’m very glad to have discovered this Blog of yours. I’ll write to you more momentarily … ?

  14. By the way, every one seems to have over looked that beautiful word (at least if your a man) wherein its 1st letter resembles it meaning: Vagina. In Manhattan, there a lovely small club, where one can Dance as well as Drink, and it’s name is “LAVA GINA” with a heavy emphasis on the “V.” and need I remind you that with Women’s Liberation, the “V” for “victory” has been modified (whereby one places ones hand to one’s mouth and moves one’s tong over the vertex of one fingers? And that of course should bring to your notice the wonderful word “VERTEX.”

  15. Have you made contact on this issue/topic with Marina Orlova of HotForWords? My vote is for “onomebleva” as the word to be coined to embody this meaning. But at this stage it’s merely a neologism, right?

  16. Your moderation is taking too loooooooooong. (Even though it ain’t in the dictionary, would you include this spelling phenomena? Similary, have you ever watched Marina Orlova on YouTube and began to fantasize about her voluptuous bOObs with similar thoughts concerning her V? Accordingly did you place an “X” to mark the spot? Being a mathematician you’re aware I’m sure that 2 line determine a point – isn’t that why X marks the spot. Marina Orlova’s two sexy llegs (I’m coining that word) makes one want to moor one ship into that seXy port? Is the “X” herein an accurate picture picture of her figure? Or should MarEEna OrllOva be better described as being extremely se8y – because an 8 better portrays a woman’s figure than an X?

  17. Just as “I” is a one-letter word that means “me,” don’t you think that “BOOBS” is redundant? Isn’t “B” for them sufficient? Think of Bra, which holds or covers them loVelies Both? By the way, I’ve been writing poetry (to my feminine paramours) using these linguistic tongue-defying phenomena for years. But your the first person I’ve come across whose made a literary issue of it. And speaking of “it” – I love it, it’s so nice and brief, and so I prefer it to “thing” (I like to know the Welsh of “it,” if you were so kind as to enlighten me on it?). As a mathematician, you might know some logic 0 that “it’ stands for an arbitrary “individual” wherefore the “i” is short for an “imaginary” – that is, the imaginary part of a complex number, and so its good that “j” resembles “it” to because, as you must know: ij = -ji.

  18. And do you think that “too” is too obviously better for “2” than “two” is. Anyway, 3 (what word would you put next here)’s is too much for the English language, if you know what I mean. i can SAY the word above, but which fills the gap above: “to,” “too,” or “two”? Or should I simply give up, and correct myself and say that there are 4 “2” in the written English language (having omitted “2” in the above?).

  19. If you delight in Greek, as you do in Welsh, you might be too busy at your particular Delta of Venus – more specifically its Orifice. I’d like to imagine that that’s why your not chewing & walking simultaneous – leaving this blog of yours with your silence. PS: The delta is the 4th letter of the Greek alphabet & and it’s an equilateral triangle balanced on it’s vertex with the top side in a horizontal position. It therefore reminds one (particularly a Verile male) of a lovely well-shaped woman’s crutch as she stands in her bathing suit “mirroring” him at not too great or close a distance.

  20. There’s a word for this already I think, it’s “iconicity.” A good article for an overview of this concept and some of the major associated issues is “The Iconic Use of Syntax in British and American Fiction” by Wolfgang G. Muller of the University of Jena. This appears in the book “The Motivated Sign” eds. Fischer & Nanny…a whole book of articles that look at different facets of iconicity. Also, thanks, I really enjoyed this post.

  21. Thanks, Emma, nice to discover another woman with a good mind for words. When I was a college freshman I was informed that Vocabulary is the best single marker for human intelligence, and that women surpassed men in achieving a good stock of words. I’ve checked with Google and accordingly find that “iconicity” is not a neologism. It’s been around for a while – yet you are the first one here to inform us of it. May I ask how it is that you know it? Of course I may, and I just have. But it seems like you’ve produced a Conclusion to this Blog. we know all need to read your reference just just gave us. But how did you learn about “iconicity”? Also, I imagine now that these kind of words are like ICONS – that’s why iconoclasts busted them up. Moses destroyed the Golden Calf, and Muhammad destroyed the 360 Icons in Mecca by the Kaaba. So should there be a law against iconicity?

  22. WTF is wrong with you people! Can you all honestly have so little to do with your lives that you have to waste them looking into the significance of the shape of words. You are all officially RETARDED!!!
    So glad i could come onto this web page just to insult you all.

  23. This post is almost a year old and people are still commenting. Thanks for the comments. Don’t stop.

    Thanks also to “spam” for taking such delight in insulting us, the pleasure is all yours.

  24. Could we now do this to spam or SPAM looks like this:

    I notice “spam” begins with “S” and ends with “M.” Are we do conclude that that’s a code-name for “S & M” – as in sadomasochism? I’m not into it myself, but maybe “spam” is. Is that why he had this need to insult us all? But I rather think s/he’s into humiliation. So how can we all do that to him/her? Of course, while keeping faithful to the topic herein. I’d rather be the humiliator, than the humiliatee, if “spam” demands it from us.

  25. I adore this discussion and I have trying to find the proper terms for this for years-
    Question, what if the word is purposely altered in the way it is naturally written?


    the ga p

    or top



    n and sooooof
    r th?????

  26. oops

    left out been.
    But I feel that this is such an important thing to discuss. Text language is really changing our perception of image/text. Very Barthesesque.

  27. Maya! This is especially for You (you reminded me of it by the comment of yours above):





    If you haven’t figured it out, it says:

    “I understand you undertake to overcome the underworld?”

  28. Maya / WD Terry, in your examples you’ve created a calligram. When the word is purposely altered to match what it looks like, it’s something different.

    I think that Carl was attempting to find the word for words that don’t need to be altered. A word in its standard writing (across most standard typefaces) looks like what it describes. Currently there is no such identifier.

  29. 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!

  30. 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?

  31. 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?

  32. 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



  33. 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?

  34. Dear Maya,

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

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

    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,

    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.

  35. 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!

  36. [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, …

  37. 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, …

  38. 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 ar gau.