How Michael spent his summer vacation

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Well, part of it, anyhow… Michael Y. Chen wrote:

I went to Beijing and studied Chinese in July, and while I was over there I came across an interesting phenomenon.

In English, we talk about shapes that correspond to letters, like an S-curve or a T junction. While asking for directions, I found that there's a similar thing for shapes that correspond to Chinese characters. For example, 十字路口 (shi2zi4lu4kou3), 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). There's also a 丁字路口 (ding1zi4lu4kou3), a "丁 intersection", which would correspond to our T intersections.

I did a Google search for more about this and found a post at Sinosplice, "Characters and Shapes, 10/14/2005.

This post explains that we'd call a V shape in English would be called a 人字形 (ren2zi4xing2), a 人 shape, in Chinese. 十字 can also refer to the shape of the cross from Christianity, resulting in words like 十字架 (shi2zi4jia1, "十 rack"), the crucifix, 十字军 (shi2zi4jun1, "十 military"), crusader, and 红十字会 (hong2shi2zi4hui4), "The Red 十 Society". The comments contributed a bunch of really interesting ones: 工字钢 (gong1zi4gang1), "工 steel", refers to I-beam steel girders, and the paper clip icon that you see when attaching files is called a 回形针(hui2xing2zhen1), a "回-shaped pin".

Do other Roman alphabet–based languages also have terms like "T intersection" and "S-curve"? And are there similar terms for orthographic systems like Devanagari, Cyrillic, Arabic, Hebrew, and Korean?

A list of English-language examples can be found in Don L.F. Nilsen and Alleen Pace Nilsen, "Letters as Shape Indicators", American Speech, 43(2): 158-159, 1968.

And according to Page 4 of Jeff Miller's Collection of Word Oddities and Trivia: "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.]"

In my search for other ortographic-shape correspondences, I found a lot of English formal documents (scientific literature, government texts) that used such terms freely. I thought that such phrases would be used only informally, but Google has proven me wrong.

[(myl) The Greeks had χι-ασμό, "placing crosswise, diagonal arrangement, esp. of the clauses of a period, so that the 1st corresponds with the 4th, and the 2nd with the 3rd", also "cruciform incision"; whence our chiasmus.

Meanwhile, we seem to be missing English letter-shape expressions for B, E, N Q, R. ]


  1. Dante said,

    September 14, 2008 @ 7:57 am

    I once saw a film in English being subtitled in Serbian Cyrillic. The last letter of the phrase "the birds flew in the shape of the letter V" ended up transliterated as "В" :)

  2. bulbul said,

    September 14, 2008 @ 8:24 am

    In Russian, there are plenty of varieties of "*-образный" ("in the shape of") where * can be a (usually capital) letter found in the Roman alphabet only (V, W), a letter that has the same shape in both Cyrillic and Roman (M, T, C, H) or a letter exclusive to Cyrillic (П-образный, Г-образный).

  3. Jon Peltier said,

    September 14, 2008 @ 9:04 am

    An autopsy begins with a Y-incision.

  4. Ransom said,

    September 14, 2008 @ 9:34 am

    I've seen "Г-образный" used to refer to buildings that we in English would call "L-shaped".

  5. Yuval said,

    September 14, 2008 @ 9:37 am

    As to Hebrew: the most obvious example would be "to stand/get arranged in a ח". I also recall "ר" being used similarly, but nothing concrete comes to mind. In halachaic usage, the knots of the tefillin straps are termed by their shape "ד" and "י" . We also have T-junctions, T-shirts etc., though I've yet to hear people talk about U-turns. More generally, it wouldn't seem strange to say something is being "becurat *" ('in the shape of -').

  6. Shimon Edelman said,

    September 14, 2008 @ 9:56 am

    In modern Hebrew, only a few of the 22 letters seem to be ever used in this manner. The most common usage is to describe an arrangement of items (for example, tables in a classroom) as "forming [the shape of the letter] xet": בצורת ח . Much more rarely, the shape of the letter reish, ר, is invoked in this manner. Then there is the expression וו הגרירה, which means "towing pin" — very appropriately, given the shape of the letter ו which anchors it. And "the tip of the yod, which is the letter י, is a common expression denoting something miniscule and worthless; it goes a long way back (the Hebrew Wikipedia mentions it, but does not offer any information about its origins, and I don't have a concordance handy). Finally, As Yuval notes, the shapes of L, T, etc. figure quite often in colloquial speech.

  7. mae said,

    September 14, 2008 @ 9:57 am

    In my aerobics class we do steps called A-step, L-step, and V-step, in reference to the shape your feet make on the floor. I suspect that special vocabularies for other similar activities probably do similar things. (Which is your point, of course.)

  8. Mary Kuhner said,

    September 14, 2008 @ 10:25 am

    One that puzzles me: a particular throw in Aikido is called hachi-noji, figure eight, and indeed one's partner sweeps through a figure-eight-like path. (It's rather a disorienting way to be thrown: it reminds me of a roller coaster.) So the name for a move in a Japanese martial art references the shape of an Arabic numeral.

  9. Alexandros Marinos said,

    September 14, 2008 @ 10:48 am

    In Greek we refer to "το δέλτα του ποταμού" meaning the river's delta, with the capital delta looking like this: "Δ". What's interesting is that the expression has translated to English without losing the reference to the Greek letter delta.

  10. Eyebrows McGee said,

    September 14, 2008 @ 10:58 am

    @mae, re: specialized vocabularies: yes, in flag-spinning (a propos of the college football season starting up), there are plenty of moves called letter and number shapes — figure 8s, J-switches, etc. (though the vocabulary is by no means standardized). What's interesting is these usually describe the pattern the BOTTOM of the pole traces, not the flag part, as a) the flag part makes more interesting patterns and b) if you sync up the bottom, the top syncs up on its own and more precisely.

  11. Timm said,

    September 14, 2008 @ 11:21 am

    Stuff like this is the reason I love linguistics.

  12. James Wimberley said,

    September 14, 2008 @ 12:00 pm

    Shimon Edelman: see Matthew 5:18, "For assuredly, I say to you, till heaven and earth pass away, one jot or one tittle will by no means pass from the law till all is fulfilled" (NKJV). Wikipedia plausibly claims that the "jot" here is the Hebrew yodh not the Greek iota, especially as the topic of the sentence is the (Hebrew) Torah.

  13. jo said,

    September 14, 2008 @ 12:15 pm

    to Mary Kuhner:

    I don't know enough about Aikido to say with any certainty, but it's equally possible that "hachi no ji" refers to the shape of the kanji numeral 八. A quick search turns up numerous martial arts references to 片手八の字返し (katate hachinoji gaeshi, one handed "figure eight / figure 八" counter).

    A more general point about Japanese:

    Since written Japanese features Chinese characters (kanji), hiragana and katakana syllables as well as roman letters and 'arabic' numerals, we can expect to find them all used in expressions such " X の字" (X no ji) and "Xの字型" (X no jigata) to describe the shapes of things. One nice one I have seen is への字口 (he no ji guchi, a mouth the shape of へ [hiragana letter "he"]) to describe someone's face.

  14. Yuval said,

    September 14, 2008 @ 2:31 pm

    @Shimon Edelman: Actually, I'm quite positive I've learnt that 'waw' originally meant a hook, which also fits its early shape(s). As to "quco šel yod" — it more likely has to do with the script used for Torah scrolls, in which yod has a single tag. Indeed, the expression appears in the Talmud Bavli (Menachot 34.) in a discussion of the writing of the Tefillin parshiyyot.

  15. dr pepper said,

    September 14, 2008 @ 3:00 pm

    "Delta" has already been mentioned. We also have "deltoid". And "sigmoid" . And i've heard a cross shaped lug wrench referred to as a "chi wrench".

  16. bulbul said,

    September 14, 2008 @ 3:22 pm

    precisely, same as "П-образный" usually stands for "U-shaped".

    I'm having a hard time reaching a Korean friend of mine, but some casual googling revealed the existence of Korean expressions like "니은모양" (nieun-moyang, in the shape of the letter nieun = ㄴ = 'n') and "외모양" (oe-moyang, in the shape of the letter o = ㅗ = 'o'). Some of them seem legit, like the first one, which can also be seen here (together with some more examples from Chinese), the others I'm not so sure about. Anybody with a better grasp of Korean care to comment?

  17. Alan Gunn said,

    September 14, 2008 @ 4:03 pm

    Many biplanes have N struts (a kind of interplane strut) between the wings. A kind of nut, sometimes called a "blind nut" looks like the letter T from the side and is often called a "tee nut" (the way I've seen it written at the local hardware store). A wing structure (for model planes; I don't know about full-scale) is called "D tube" because the cross section from the main spar forward looks like the letter.

    In German, there's a kind of armature called the "Doppel-T-Anker" because it looks like a T with a crossbar at both ends. German also has "O ring"; whether they borrowed it from English (or vice versa) I don't know. They also have an "O-Bahn," which I think means a "ring road" but I'm not sure (I know only a little German).

  18. Andy said,

    September 14, 2008 @ 4:05 pm

    While I haven't seen a true example of a B-word in English, I did use the shape of B (and D) as a mnemonic to remember which type of camel was a Dromedary and which was a Bactrian. Turned on their sides, D has one hump and B has two… just like their respective camels.

  19. bulbul said,

    September 14, 2008 @ 4:58 pm


    there is an "O-Bahn" in Adelaide, but here the 'O' apparently stands for "omnibus". Perhaps you mean "U-bahn" for (US) "subway", but this time 'U' stands for "Untergrund". 'U' in "U-Boot", while we're on the subject, is also an abbreviation from "Untersee" = "undersea".

  20. Alan Gunn said,

    September 14, 2008 @ 5:21 pm


    Yes, I think you're right about O-Bahn (which isn't in my dictionary): I'd seen the word but never heard it used so I was guessing. The other two I suggested are based on the shape of the letter, though. It would surprise me if there were languages with alphabets and near-universal literacy that didn't have this kind of word, as the shapes are so well known.

  21. Daniel von Brighoff said,

    September 14, 2008 @ 5:53 pm

    It's a bit off the main topic, but one way to describe someone as unlettered in Korean is to say "낫놓고 기역자도 모른다" /nas nohko ki.yekca to molunta/ or "He doesn't know the letter kiyǒk (ㄱ) from a sickle." (Traditional Korean hand sickles are more angular than their Western counterparts.)

  22. bulbul said,

    September 14, 2008 @ 5:56 pm


    I'd be surprised too, but the thing that's got me wondering now is what happens if more than two characters have the same shape, only the orientation is different. A case in point: Korean ㄱ (k/g) and ㄴ(n). We've seen that 니은모양 is indeed used in Korean, so I wonder, do they use 기역모양 (giyeok-moyang "ㄱ-shaped") as well? And if (which appears to be the case), which one is more frequent and why?

  23. Michael W said,

    September 14, 2008 @ 5:56 pm

    For E-shapes, there's "E core [transformer]" (or sometimes "E transformer") from electronics. Even though the E part often mates with another shaped piece, the term is used informally for the whole class of transformers made this way. shows some diagrams.

  24. Nigel Greenwood said,

    September 14, 2008 @ 6:33 pm

    R clips may be seen at:


  25. David Marjanović said,

    September 14, 2008 @ 7:20 pm

    Do other Roman alphabet–based languages also have terms like "T intersection" and "S-curve"?

    German has both of these (T-Kreuzung, S-Kurve) and many more, though maybe not quite as many as English.

    O-Bahn… I've never been to a city which has one, but probably that's a non-underground train (oberirdisch), in explicit contrast to U-Bahn (Untergrundbahn, see above). O-Bus is an electric bus that gets its electricity from above, like a train, from an Oberleitung.

  26. Richard Bell said,

    September 14, 2008 @ 8:15 pm

    There is such a thing as an e-clip. It is a kind of retaining ring, like a C with a little projection at the middle into the center, and small projections at the ends of the C. The three projections fit into a groove on a shaft, like a motor shaft, to contain movement along the shaft.

  27. Tristan McLeay said,

    September 14, 2008 @ 10:12 pm

    Hm, well there's the word “ hyoid ”, from an old name for the Greek letter upsilon, meaning Y-shaped (or is it u-shaped ? I'm not sure).

  28. Kyungjoon Lee said,

    September 15, 2008 @ 2:41 am

    In Korea we use terms like 십자로 十字路 and 십자가 十字架 as well. BTW, the Red Cross is known as 적십자 赤十字 in Korea, not *홍십자 *紅十字.

    We also say 갈 지자 모양, referring to the Hanja for 之. This is used to describe zigzags, for example to describe drunks who can't walk in a straight line. 큰 대자 모양 refers to 大. This describes someone lying on the ground with arms and legs spread apart.

    I'd say 기역자로/기역자 모양 would be much more common than phrases using 니은. Examples: 기역자로 구부러졌다 Bent like a ㄱ letter, 기역자 모양으로 생겼다 Is shaped like the shape of the ㄱ letter.

    I've seen 디귿자 모양 as well, I think, to refer to ㄷ shapes.

  29. Mayson Lancaster said,

    September 15, 2008 @ 2:42 am

    I've heard nurses or medics refer to Q-factor patients – those so badly off that their tongue was hanging out.

  30. David Letterman said,

    September 15, 2008 @ 6:25 am

    Ring as in ring-road is the same in German and indeed may come from German. Vienna's famous Ringstrasse predates any British example I can think of.

  31. Aaron Davies said,

    September 15, 2008 @ 10:17 am

    Relatedly, when these expressions are used in traditional English-language typeset text (e.g. novels), the letter is generally set in a sans-serif typeface which stands out quite noticeably from the text. I haven't done any detailed comparison, but it's generally seemed to me to be more or less the same font every time. Does anyone know if that's true, and if so, what font it is?

  32. bulbul said,

    September 15, 2008 @ 2:01 pm


    thanks :) What about the vowel characters, e.g. 아자 모양, are they used as well and if, which of the identical shapes is more frequent than the others?

  33. Elyaqim Mosheh Adam said,

    September 15, 2008 @ 2:51 pm

    In Yiddish, a t square is a טע־װינקל (te viŋkl, T angle), referring specifically to the Latin letter t by its Yiddish name טע (te). A delta is also referred to using the Greek letter’s shape: דעלטע (delte Δ). A u-turn can be called an או־אױסבײג (u oysbeyk) referring to the Latin letter u (או u), but can also be called a (כף־אױסבײג xof oysbeyk, כ turn) after the shape of the Hebrew letter. In contemporary Hebrew slang, the penis is called זין (zayin ז) because of its supposed resemblance to the shape of the letter.

  34. Troy S said,

    September 15, 2008 @ 4:31 pm

    In Persian, there are two letters with the same name: ه and ح
    both pronounced like "hey" . To distinguish them ه is called "hey docheshm" and ح is referred to as "hey jimi."

    The "do cheshm" means "two eyes" since it looks like it in handwriting, but
    "jimi" simply means "jim-shaped", after the letter jim, ج .

  35. Troy S said,

    September 15, 2008 @ 4:38 pm

    In another twist, English also has the word decussate meaning literally "shaped like the number ten". Of course, in Roman numerals, the number ten was written as the letter X.

  36. Yuval said,

    September 15, 2008 @ 5:20 pm

    I've never before encountered this explanation for 'zayin'. I always thought it was to 'zereg' what 'f' is to the 'F word', which, I was told, used to be the more offensive of the two.

  37. Kyungjoon Lee said,

    September 15, 2008 @ 6:03 pm

    bulbul, I can't think of any examples using Hangul vowels, I'm afraid. I don't think they exist.

    But that reminds me of 일자 一字 which uses the Hanja character of "one" to describe straight shapes.

    BTW 팔자(八字)걸음 is a walking gait where the feet are spread apart like an upside-down 八 letter.

  38. Elyaqim Mosheh Adam said,

    September 15, 2008 @ 7:59 pm

    I cannot recall where I heard or read the zayin/penis connection, but I found two (not necessarily reliable) sources on the Web:• AwakenedAddict, pseud., untitled post in thread “That nasty lil swear word …‘F*CK’,” Tranceaddict Forums, no date. “The hebrew one is kinda funny because zayin=penis, but it is also the seventh letter of the hebrew alphabet, and really looks like a penis (as much as a letter of the alphabet can ;) )”• Anonymous, untitled post in section “‘TZADIQ’ as a pronunciation of צ” of “Talk:Hebrew alphabet,” Wikipedia, 28 March 2006. “a zayin (ז) looks like a penis, and became common vernacular (slang) for the male member. Contrary, or maybe not, a Sofer S"TM would tell you that a zayin represents a sword.”

  39. Nathan Myers said,

    September 15, 2008 @ 11:27 pm

    In electrical network theory, which is the basis for all of electrified (as opposed to computerized) modern life, the two three-phase power connection topologies are called (literally) "delta" and "wye".

    It seems uncommon to spell out a roman letter name. The only other examples that come to mind are the the typographical "em-" and "en-dash", and "okay".

  40. Nigel Greenwood said,

    September 16, 2008 @ 5:20 am

    Re: Persian H. The two-eyed one is so called because the initial form is written ﻫ .

    Now for something even more recondite — referring to an alphabet no longer in use. A Turkish expression for taking a stroll is "lam elif çevirmek" (turn [the Arabic/Ottoman Turkish letters] Lam and Alif". This refers to the l-a ligature لا , which when reversed resembles a pair of legs.


  41. Nathan Myers said,

    September 16, 2008 @ 3:21 pm

    (… not to say that Y is particularly Roman.)

  42. Breffni said,

    September 16, 2008 @ 6:30 pm

    Nathan said:

    It seems uncommon to spell out a roman letter name. The only other examples that come to mind are the the typographical "em-" and "en-dash", and "okay".

    There's "aitch". Though for my pronunciation it should be "haitch".

  43. Zackary Sholem Berger said,

    September 16, 2008 @ 9:50 pm

    Zayin זיין (penis) is short for Ashkenazic Hebrew –> Yiddish כּלי-זיין "implement of war" i.e. weapon.

    As for shapes corresponding to Yiddish letters and vowels, it's not all that common but not rare either.

    קמץ-בערדל komets-berdl "Van Dyke beard"
    כּף-אויסבייג kof-oysbeyg "U turn"
    סגול segl (cf Modern Israeli Hebrew segol) can be used for diamond shapes. E.g. די פֿייגל זײַנען אַוועקגעפֿלויגן אין אַ סגל the birds flew away in a V.

    Of course, the Hebrew/Yiddish/Jewish letters themselves are named for their rough resemblances (ו vav hook) but this is widely known.

  44. Nathan Myers said,

    September 16, 2008 @ 10:00 pm

    @Breffni: Yes, but is "aitch" used in a word for anything but the letter itself? E.g., we speak of steel buildings constructed of I-beams, not eye-beams, and T-intersections, not tee-intersections (the golf tee < Gaelic "tigh" doesn't count); likewise A-frame houses and A-line dresses, the L train (hehe), S- and U-turns, and X marks. ("Elbow" only works the other way, and then only if we pretend the letter took its name from the proto-indo-european "el" for elbow or forearm.)

  45. Mark Liberman said,

    September 16, 2008 @ 11:53 pm

    Zachary Sholem Berger: Zayin זיין (penis) is short for Ashkenazic Hebrew –> Yiddish כּלי-זיין "implement of war" i.e. weapon.

    See "Begin arming Israel", 11/17/2004.

  46. Breffni said,

    September 17, 2008 @ 2:55 am

    Nathan: Sorry, I see what you mean. No, I can't think of any "aitch"-compounds in common use, though the OED has aitch-bone – "The bone of the buttock or rump; the cut of beef lying over this bone."

    As an aside, it occurs to me that it would have been problematic to spell out the letter in the most notorious H's around here, the H-blocks of the Maze Prison, precisely because the aitch / haitch pronunciation is a Catholic / Protestant shibboleth.

    To get back to your original point, there's tee-shirt / teeshirt. I wonder if that gets spelled out (sometimes) because it's semantically opaque for many people? Might that apply to your "wye" example?

  47. Nathan Myers said,

    September 17, 2008 @ 3:39 am

    @Breffni: Ooo, tee-shirt, good one. A wye configuration is very obviously shaped like the letter; the delta, likewise. So, who-all says "haitch"? And do you find yourself prefixing "I" and "you" with a haitch for emphasis?

  48. Breffni said,

    September 17, 2008 @ 6:35 am

    who-all says "haitch"?

    Southerners (i.e., Republic of Ireland), and Northern Ireland Catholics.

    And do you find yourself prefixing "I" and "you" with a haitch for emphasis?

    What, like /hai/ and /hju/? No, it's purely a difference in the name of the letter. (I think most Irish people make a /hw/ – /w/ distinction (whales vs Wales), but that's presumably unrelated.) "Haitch" is pretty much standard and stigma-free in (Southern) Irish English, though that may be changing: lately I've noticed certain newsreaders using "aitch" consistently.

    "Haitch" seems to exist in England as a stigmatised variant – a "pushy aggressive grey squirrel", no less – if this article is anything to go by: Why I ate the Haitch mob. (And just to go even further OT, I'd pronounce "ate" as /ɛt/, which spoils the pun a bit.)

  49. Nigel Greenwood said,

    September 17, 2008 @ 7:21 am

    There's a bit of typographical pedantry that's always puzzled me. In many books special fonts are used for the letter shapes (eg U-bend, T junction). Why do printers feel obliged to do this? It doesn't add anything.

  50. Irene said,

    September 18, 2008 @ 2:08 pm

    How can one accurately represent an I-beam in print using a sans-serif font? As one whose first name begins with I, I avoid using a sans-serif font if I can. I would think the same would apply to people from Illinois, those who are ill and those who are the third generation with the same name.

  51. Randy said,

    September 21, 2008 @ 12:14 pm

    "In Greek we refer to "το δέλτα του ποταμού" meaning the river's delta, with the capital delta looking like this: "Δ". What's interesting is that the expression has translated to English without losing the reference to the Greek letter delta."

    There is a neighbourhood in the city of Hamilton (Ontario, Canada), known as The Delta, named after the triangle formed by 3 different streets in that area.

  52. Randy said,

    September 21, 2008 @ 12:16 pm

    "How can one accurately represent an I-beam in print using a sans-serif font? As one whose first name begins with I, I avoid using a sans-serif font if I can. I would think the same would apply to people from Illinois, those who are ill and those who are the third generation with the same name."

    An H-beam?

  53. Florence said,

    September 25, 2008 @ 11:47 am

    I've always wondered if the word "tee" used in golf is a reference to the shape of the thing. I don't play golf and have never seen one up close, so I may be completely wrong.

    I do know that in French, the type of T-shaped ruler that is used to trace right angles is called a "té", which is the pronunciation of the letter T.

    We also use U-shape (for a table layout in a meeting room for instance) and I think we have T-shaped intersections too. I can't think of other examples right now. Oh, and we have the word (river) delta also.

  54. Dante said,

    October 2, 2008 @ 12:10 pm

    When the American economy enters a downturn, you often hear the experts debating whether it is likely to be V-shaped (short and sharp) or U-shaped (longer but milder). Today, the American economy may be entering a downturn that is best described as L-shaped. It is in a very low place indeed, and likely to remain there for some time to come.

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