Are You Letterate?
A litter of literal literature
Some words have a curious derivation involving the name of a letter.
The relationship usually involves an analogy based on the shape of
the letter, but other relationships come from the size of the letter,
or the sound represented by it. And then there are words for some
odd letters, symbols and punctuation marks.
66 and 99 were the names given by a friend of mine
in fourth grade to the opening and closing double quote marks.
I didn't know what he was talking about. I just thought he was
funny because he wore sandals.
An A battery ?
An A frame is a type of house, more commonly a chalet,
with no walls, two slanting roof sides, and two floors,
often with large picture windows, suggesting the letter A.
An A level is not those dreaded English examinations; rather
it's an ancient Egyptian level shaped like the letter A.
The crossbar has a line marking its center. A string is attached
to the top of the A, and a weight keeps it taut. When the
string hangs down right by the crossbar marking, the crossbar
A shirt is a "T shirt" with no arms at all.
A to Z suggests full and complete coverage of a subject.
An A-hed is the nickname for any of the offbeat articles
that appear in the central column of the front page of the
Wall Street Journal, introduced with a multiline headline
whose lines are arranged to suggest the letter A.
Ache is a former spelling of "H".
Air Quotes are the gestured quote signs used to indicate
skepticism about a word or phrase; an acting out of the
"Quote Unquote" phrase.
Aitch is the most interesting name of a letter. All the
others I was able to figure out or fake (except, I guess, for the
name of Q.) But I couldn't even begin to imagine how
to spell the name of H which also breaks the rule of consonant
names by not beginning with its own sound.
Aitchless sneeringly denotes those people who
characteristically drop the initial "H" sound of words.
Albam describes a cypher using the Hebrew alphabet, in
which the first letter of the first half, Aleph, is
interchanged with the first letter of the second half,
Lamedh, and similarly Beth is interchanged with
Mem and so on.
Alpha and Omega, the first and last letters of the Greek
alphabet, is a phrase meaning the first and last; the beginning
and the end, and by implication, everything in between. These
letters occasionally appear in religious imagery to suggest that
God is the beginning and end and everything in between.
Alphabet comes from the names of two letters that aren't
in the alphabet - not ours, anyway. By the way, analphabetic
is a synonym for "illiterate".
Ampersand is an "honorary" letter. It used to be the 27-th
letter in the alphabet, so it trailed the alphabet song with
"X, Y, Z, and, per se, 'and'", and this got slurred to
ampersand. The shape of an ampersand was originally a script
form of Et, the Latin for "and".
Ampussy-and is a variant form of "ampersand".
The Apostrophe is a formal name for the punctuation mark
that is sometimes called the "single quote" (at least when the
symbol is a short vertical mark, or looking like a very small
reflected "c"). The name comes from a rhetorical term that describes
the insertion, in a speech to a general audience, of comments to
an individual or small subgroup.
Asterisk is the star-shaped mark *; aster
is a Greek root meaning "star".
Asterism is a pattern of up and down stars, something like:
* * *
The at sign was originally simply a grocer's symbol for
the unit price: "5 Apples @ 2 cents each", for instance. It was
considered of such little importance that, for instance, there
was no Morse Code symbol for it. (This was only recently changed,
because of the popularity of Internet addresses, and the official
symbol is now "DIT-DAH-DAH-DIT-DAH-DIT" although most senders
prefer to simply spell out "AT". The odd shape of the symbol
has inspired a few interesting names, including "monkey's tail"
in Dutch and "petit escargot (little snail)" in French.
Athbash or atbash is yet another mystical Hebrew cypher,
in which Aleph is interchanged with Taw, the last
letter of the second half, Beth with Shin, and
so on. In the book of Jeremiah 25:26 and 51:41, the name Babel
(Beth-Beth-Lamed) becomes Sheshach
Backslash is a name for the symbol \.
Bang is a computer user's name for the exclamation mark.
Barbecue, the name for an outdoor cookout, is supposedly
derived from the brand of a cattle ranch, the "Bar-B-Q".
Betacism refers to the loss of the distinction between the
sounds of B and V in a language. This is a berry
berry bad thing to happen! It can also occur in a person's speech
who habitually converts V or P sounds to B.
Blind P is the editorial symbol for "paragraph", ¶ or
a backwards P whose "eye" is filled in.
Breve is the curved mark placed over short vowels.
Bullet is the name for the little filled-in circle used
to mark each item on a list.
A C clamp is a clamp in the shape of the letter C.
A C clef is a musical symbol used to indicate the pitch
of the notes. The symbol is a stylized letter C, and the
note middle C corresponds to the line that passes through the middle
of the symbol. (Clef is the French word for "key").
C-fold towels are paper towels made by folding two opposite
sides to meet in the middle, forming a sort of flat C.
A C hole is the C shaped sound hole in viols
A C note is a hundred dollar bill, named for the Roman numeral
C, denoting "100" and abbreviating the Roman word centum
A C post is a C shaped pillar on the side of a car,
which connects the floor and the roof.
C ring is a ring that has been cut at one point, or a ring with
a sizable gap. In most cases, the cut has been made to allow the ring
to encircle an object; the ring can also be used to connect several
bands or loops.
A C scroll is a kind of ornamental C-shaped scroll
design on furniture.
C spring is a spring in the shape of the letter C.
Such a spring is used in the design of seismometers, for instance.
A C wrench is the common C-shaped non-adjustable wrench.
A C'd frame is a custom car adaptation which lowers the car by
cutting the chassis and inserting C-shaped sections above the
A Caesura is an indicator of a break in the flow of sound in a
Classical Greek or Latin poem, and is represented by two vertical
bars, ||, also known as parallels.
A caron is a diacritical mark, sometimes called the inverted
circumflex, which frequently occurs in Czech spelling.
A Cedilla is the strangely modified c that looks like
it has a beard. The little dangly thing is actually a z.
It sometimes occurs in older English publications when
a foreign word like façade is printed. The cedilla
occurs in French (cedille), Italian (zediglia), and Spanish
(cedilla), and is intended to modify the "default" c sound.
The name actually refers to the Greek letter zeta.
Chiasm - information from the left and right eyes goes back to
the visual cortex along thick optic nerves. About halfway along
this path, the nerves meet, and seem to cross. Actually, some
of the nerve bundles on the left go left, and some right; the
eyes are actually exchanging some information. This crossing
area is called the optic chiasm, and oddly enough, the
word derives from the X-shape of the Greek letter Chi.
Chiasm or chiasmus was originally used for a sort of
inversion in literature, such as "He left Egypt; Egypt was left by
Chi Rho is a symbolic abbreviation of the name of Christ,
being an elaborate depiction of the Greek letters Chi and
Rho. It is also sometimes called the Chrismon.
A circumflex is a bent bar, usually appearing above a letter,
like so: ê.
The Collar of Esses was a chain of S shaped links
worn by high officials of the House of Lancaster. You may have
spotted that fashion plate Thomas More wearing such a chain in
A Man for All Seasons.
A Colon was originally a rhetorical term, indicated a phrase
of short length.
A Comma was originally a rhetorical term, indicating a phrase
of intermediate length.
The comma butterfly has a mark on each wing shaped like
a comma or the letter "C". (In German, its name is the
Crisscross, which has come to mean any pattern of crossing
objects, came from the common printing figure of a cross, or
Christ's cross", used, for instance, as the initial sign in
any presentation of the alphabet.
Crisscross row is a nickname for the alphabet, apparently
because, in primers and hornbooks, the alphabet was preceded
by a large cross ("Christ's cross").
Crossrow, a printed list of the alphabet, so named because
it typically appeared as a single row of letters, and began with
an initial cross.
Crossing the T, a nautical procedure in which an attacking
ship passes along the stern of another ship, so that it can fire
each of its guns at the stern of the target, which usually has
little or no armament there.
Crunch is another name for the pound sign or hash mark.
Cue might be how you spell Q, but then again,
since there's no official name, I've seen it spelled
Kew, Kue, Ku, Kyoo, Kyu
and even Queue.
Cue, meaning an actor's signal to begin, is traced back to
the Latin word Quando, meaning "when", abbreviated Q,
and pronounced cue. Playscripts were written with the letter
Q before each player's lines.
A Curly Cue is a "swash" letter Q, or the tail of such
a Q, and hence we have curlicue.
Curly Pi is a variant Greek letter, written as a lowercase
omega with an overbar, used in mathematics and
physics. In the TeX text processing language, it is encoded as
A D duct is a hot air duct, with a D-shaped
cross-section, in the leading edge of an airfoil, used for deicing.
A D net is a net with an orifice shaped like a D,
used for collecting plankton from the bottom of the ocean bed.
A D Ring is a metal ring in the shape of the letter D;
the flat side commonly allows a strap to pass through.
A D Valve is a metal valve in the shape of the letter D,
used in steam engines;
A Dagger is the name for a printing symbol that looks like
a dagger, and is used for unnumbered footnotes. There is also
a double dagger, necessary when the footnotes are really
piled on. I ran across both of these in a story by Edgar
Allan Poe in which he used a riot of footnotes. Try to find it!
A dash is one name for a horizontal line, appearing
at about the middle height of text, and having various widths.
Decussate (which appears in Samuel Johnson's famous impenetrable
definition of a network!) refers to something having the shape of a
X, but it arrives at this meaning by way of Latin, since
decussis means "ten", and the Romans used an X
to symbolize that number.
Delta is the Greek letter shaped like a triangle suggested
the fan shape of the alluvial deposits at a river's mouth.
A delta connection is a triangular symbol used in a three-phase
A delta metal is an alloy of zinc, copper and iron; its
name comes from the fact that the symbol for delta has three sides.
A Delta wing is a kind of airplane architecture in which
the wings are swept back to form a large triangle.
Deltaic means shaped like the letter Delta.
The Deltidium is the Delta-shaped space between
the beak and the hinge of a brachyopod shell.
Deltoid means shaped like the letter Delta. In anatomy,
the deltoid muscle lies over the joint of the shoulder and
raises the arm away from the side of the body.
A diagonal is a forward slash sign, /.
A Dieresis is a pair of dots, similar to an umlaut, but meant
to indicate that a second vowel is to be prounounced separately.
A dieresis was occasionally seen over the second "o" in "cooperate",
as in "coöperate",
in the fussy old Reader's Digest, and they continue to pop up in
the willfully antique New Yorker. Other words that once used the
dieresis include naïve and Boëthius.
Digamma is an obsolete Greek letter, resembling a
capital F, supposed to represent the W sound,
and used in the alphanumeric coding system to stand for 6.
Another name for this letter was vau.
A Dingbat is any kind of ornamental or fancy letter or
Dining at the Y is a slang term for cunnilingus, from a
resemblance between the female genitals and the letter Y.
A diple is a name for the character "greater than",
or "closing angle bracket", >. It was used by the
Greeks to indicate a rejected passage in a text.
A ditto mark is a (double) quotation mark, but the variety
in which the marks point straight downwards (unlike the curved
"66" and "99" versions). The name comes from the Latin "dicta"
suggesting "as said above", and I have seen it abbreviated as
"do." in, I believe, some odd short story by Poe. Of course,
once it was used to mean "the same as above" it was a natural
extension to begin talking about "ditto machines" to reproduce
a stencil, or "ditto heads" who agree with whatever Rush Limbaugh
says. (Has he shut up yet?)
Dog's ballocks is a slang term for the punctuation :-.
Dog's cock is a slang term for the exclamation mark !.
Dot is a name for the period symbol.
to dot the i's and cross the t's is to carefully attend to
all the minor details in a procedure.
Dotless i is the name of the lowercase letter i, when
printed without the dot. This is occasionally useful when
an overbar or accent is to be used to modify the letter.
Dotless j is the name of the lowercase letter j, when
printed without the dot. This is occasionally useful when
an overbar or accent is to be used to modify the letter.
A double O or a double O look is a wide-eyed
stare of astonishment.
Double-U is the name for W which is, of course,
Double-V, at least in looks. Compare Digamma
and Trigamma, two obsolete Greek letters which were
shaped like Gamma but with two and three side bars.
Ecphonesis means "outcry" and is a fancy name for the
Effing is a euphemism for whatever unseemly obscenity might
begin with F.
An Ell is a building or wing of a building shaped like
the letter L.
An Ellipsis is a set of three dots ... that suggest
an unfinished thought or saying.
Em and En denote horizontal measures of printing
space equivalent to that required by M and N
An Em-dash amounts to a double hyphen (or En-dash),
and is used, not to connect a hyphenated word,
but to indicate a pause or change of thought.
End Slug is the name of the filled-in box used to denote
the end of an article in a newspaper or magazine.
An epiphoneme is a fancy name for the exclamation mark.
The Episemon were the "after signs", that is, the
3 obsolete Greek letters Vau or Digamma, Koppa/Qoppa and Sampi,
which were sometimes listed at the end of the alphabet, and
primarily used in the Greek's alphanumeric coding.
Epsilon and Upsilon are two Greek letters whose
names have meaning. The psilon part of the names means
"bare" or "mere"; these letters represent short or unstressed
"E" and "U" sounds. I believe the long "E" sound is Eta
but I don't know whether there is a corresponding long "U" sound,
perhaps in the attic of discarded Greek letters.
Eroteme is a name for the question mark.
Erte was the pseudonym of the Art Deco artist
illustrator and costume designer Remain di Tirtoff,
and comes from the French pronounciation
of his initials, "R T" (air-tay).
Ess is the common way of spelling out the name of S.
Etacism, from the name of the Greek vowel sound eta,
refers to the pronunciation of the Greek eta as a long "a" sound;
Erasmus was one of the promoters of this style, as opposed to
Eth or Edh is an old English letter which looks
like a crossed D, and represents a "th" sound.
An exclamation mark is the common name for the punctuation
mark for surprise or emphasis, !. One derivation for
its form suggests that it was originally a stylized form of
the letters Io, an abbreviation of the Latin
Ezod is an obsolete name for the letter Z.
An F clef is a musical symbol used to indicate the pitch
of the notes. The symbol is so stylized that it looks nothing
like the letter F. The note F below middle C
corresponds to the line that passes between the double dots
of the symbol.
ff is the representation of a letter used as the first
letter in some Scottish names. It is pronounced "F", and
often transcribed as "F", so its usefulness may be questioned.
Roger Moore starred in a movie called "ffolkes", and the
aunt of the narrator of "The Towers of Trebizond" is
Dorothy ffoulkes-Corbett, so you may still encounter it.
F head - having one valve in the head, and another on
the side of the engine cylinder.
F holes are the long graceful curly openings on the
faces of violins and certain other stringed instruments,
shaped like a baroque f.
A figure 4 is a way of sitting with the legs apart,
and the right foot resting on the left knee. The legs then
form a sort of figure of the numeral 4. Supposedly, sitting
this way was, at least at one time, indicative of being American.
A fistnote is the name for the little pointing hand icon
("Honest Lawyer, One Flight Up").
A Flubdub, also called a dingbat, is any kind of
ornamental or fancy letter or symbol.
A fluctustress is a sort of wavy underlining intended to
suggest the underlining was done by hand.
A full stop is a name for the punctuation mark that
is also known as the period.
Futhark is the name of the runic alphabet, you know, those
vertical bars with little diagonal shoots here and there that you
find so often carved into rocks in Minnesota.
This alphabet gets its name from its first six letters:
"f", "u", "th", "a", "r" and "c". Why can't they name their
alphabet more sensibly, like ours?
A G clef is a musical symbol used to indicate the pitch
of the notes. The symbol is a stylized letter G (you can't
see it til you know what you're looking for!), and the
note G above middle C corresponds to the line that is circled
by the curly tail of the symbol.
A G crimp is the name in England of what in America is
called a C clamp, and in fact, gives perhaps a better
picture of the actual device!
Gamma is a sort of surgical instrument made up of a handle,
and a very sharp blade, in the shape of the Greek letter Gamma.
A Gamma moth is a kind of moth which has markings similar to
Gamma on its wings.
Gammacism is difficulty in pronouncing velar or guttural
consonants such as G and K.
A Gammadion or Gamma cross is the swastika, which can
be constructed by using four Gamma's.
Gamut comes from the Guidonian musical scale, in which
Gamma denoted the lowest note, and ut the lowest
note of each hexachord.
Gee Throw is a heavy wooden lever with a curved point used
to break out logging sleds.
Guillemots is the name of the double angle bracket signs
used in European texts the way we use quotation marks. It is also
the name of a sea-bird, and the shape of a flying bird might
have suggested the name.
An H beam or H bar is a metal beam with the cross-section of an
H. It is distinguished from an I beam
by having noticeably wider flanges.
H block is the name of the individual buildings in
Maze Prison, each shaped like an H.
H budding is plate budding in which cuts in the bark
of the stock are made in the form of an H.
An H hinge is a hinge with leaves which, when open, resemble
the letter H.
An H stretcher is a bar supporting two other bars and forming
an H; often seen in chair legs.
Hacek is a diacritical mark used in some Czech words.
It's like a small, shallow V.
Hash or hash mark is a name for the symbol #.
Hyoid literally means something shaped like the Greek
letter Upsilon. Apparently, the etymology is hu-oeides,
where hu is the name of the letter. Recall that
Upsilon is to be read as U-psilon, that is,
U-short, and it's not so surprising that hy-
is related to hu- is related to u.
The hypoid bone is a U shaped bone at
the root of the tongue. If you watch a lot of crime shows, you
know that this bone is damaged when the victim is strangled.
It's also one of the rare bones that's not attached to another bone.
A hyphen is a kind of dash. The name comes from the
Greek, and indicates that the hyphen was originally written
below two letters, to bring them together.
Hypsiloid literally means something shaped like the Greek
An I bar is a steel beam whose profile is in the shape
of the capital letter I.
An I beam is a steel beam whose profile is in the shape
of the capital letter I.
An I formation is an offensive football play in which the
quarterback, a half back, the full back, and the tail back line up
behind the center.
An I girder is a steel beam whose profile is in the shape
of the capital letter I.
I hat, the letter "I" with a circumflex above it.
I head - having valves in the cylinder head.
An I iron is a steel beam whose profile is in the shape
of the capital letter I.
An I ring is a band or metal hoop that goes around a metal drum.
An I seawall is a thin concrete wall used to protect
against flooding; it is distinguished by having no significant
horizontal concrete supporting base.
Interrobang was a word coined in the '60's for a punctuation
mark that combined the question and exclamation marks into one
symbol, to be used in phrases like "You're running off with my
Inverted commas is a term for quotation marks.
Iota means a very small amount, and comes from the
fact that the Greek letter iota is relatively small.
Iotacism or Itacism is the pronunciation of the Greek
eta as a long e sound.
Izzard is an obsolete name for Z, compared to which
Zed looks positively normal. However, I've seen an explanation
now which derives the name from "S hard", and after "and,
per se, and" for "ampersand" and "big O/little O" for
"omega/omicron", I'll believe many things!
J is a "fancy" form of I; Roman inscriptions, and "real" Latin,
use an I where we have a J. The original I had both a vowel and
consonantal function, with the J later being used as a specialized
consonantal I. Occasionally, you might see a J used in Roman
numerals, especially lower case ones.
A J bar lift is a ski-lift which comprises a sequence of J-shaped bars.
J bolt is a bolt in the shape of a J.
J box is a J-shaped box through which fabric is
passed for a process such as bleaching.
The J curve is a curve, suggestive of the shape of a J,
that illustrates how after a currency falls in value, the trade
deficit grows first before shrinking. It can also look like a
reversed J, similar to a hyperbola, and is referred to in
biology as representing a typical distribution of species in an area,
with a few numerous species, and many species with just a few
J pouch, a bag or pouch surgically formed from part of the
small intestine to facilitate the temporary retention of stools.
J stick, another name for a J-bar lift
A J stroke is a rowing stroke, in the course of which the
end of the paddle or oar traverses the figure of a J.
A J turn is a test of a car's reliability, made by making
a sudden sharp turn around an obstacle like another car or
an animal, resulting in a path that looks something like a J.
A jot is a very small thing, used in the phrase "down to the
last jot and tittle", and derived from the letter iota,
itself an indication of small things.
A tittle, by the way, is a very small diacritical mark
A K turn is often called a "three point turn"; it is
a method of turning around in a road too narrow to permit a U turn.
A K truss is a building truss with a vertical member and
two obliques, which forms a K.
King's X is a "safe" sign used in children's games. Forming
an X with your fingers means that you can't be caught. The
phrase is supposed to have come from "King's excuse".
Koppa or Qoppa is an obsolete Greek letter, retained
in the alphanumeric coding system to represent 90.
L 7 represents a square, and hence an unhip person, from
the shape formed by the two symbols put together, and suggested
manually by the outstretched thumbs and forefingers of both hands.
An L bar is a steel beam in the shape of an L.
An L block is an L-shaped concrete building block.
L head is a name for an internal combustion engine with valves
placed beside the piston, rather than inside the cylinder head; also
called a "flathead" engine.
An L pipe is a piece of plumbing pipe with a 90 degree bend,
making it look like an L.
An L shaped bottom is what happens when the stock market
drops sharply...and doesn't come back up for a long long time.
An L sill is a carpenter's term for a sill used in a building
frame. A plate is attached to a basement wall, and an upright
header is fixed to the outer edge of the plate, forming an L.
An L square is a carpenter's ruler shaped like an L.
An L wrench is a wrench shaped like an L.
Lallation is the imperfect pronunciation of "L" as "R".
The lambda suture or lambdoidal suture is a suture
between the occipital bone and the two parietal bones of the skull.
A Lambda virus is shaped like the Greek letter Lambda,
and is studied by a lambdologist.
Lambdacism is excessive use of the L sound, or
defective pronunciation of it. Perhaps this happens when I
torture my little brother Hyung-Chun Lee by making him say the
"I'm really Larry the Raleigh lorry roller" until we both
Lambdoid or Lambdoidal means shaped like the letter
A lazy eight is a name for the symbol
¥ used to denote
A lemniscus is a name for the symbol
¸ we sometimes use for
the division sign, which could be formed on a typewriter
by overstriking a dash with a colon.
A ligature, literally a "binding", is like that band of
skin that joined the Chang and Eng, the Siamese twins.
In typesetting, a ligature is a reformation of separate characters
into a new form that is easier to read, or abbreviated, or
traditional. People are often unaware that certain letter
combinations are routinely replaced by ligatured forms,
particularly pairs beginning with f, such as "ff", "fl",
"fi". Historically, the letter W came about as a
ligature of two V's, used to represent a sound for which
there was no standard letter. Two other ligatures were commonly
used in words derived from Latin such as Cæsar or ftal.
These ligatures were also used for words in the Old English
alphabet, and in fact, Æ was known as "ash" and
Œ as "ethel"!. Ethel should not be confused with
Ø, which is known as "slashed O" or "O with a stroke".
This is a letter in its own right in some Scandinavian languages.
At one time the letter "s" could be written with a
special symbol that looked like a bar-less "f". In German,
a special ligature was developed for the double-s character,
since the second "s" would appear in the more common form.
The ligature replaced the form "fs" by ß, a form which
known as the "esszet" or "S-Z".
Another ligature came by replacing the
Latin "et", meaning "and", by a stylized ligatured pair of
letters "e" and "t", which in turn became the Ampersand.
I have seen the phrase "et cetera" written as "&c".
A long S is that "old timey" version of the letter S
that looked like a lower case f without the cross-bar.
It is still used in German, so that the word daß is
properly transliterated as dass.
An M roof is a roof with a double peak.
A macron is the horizontal bar used to mark long vowels.
Mytacism is the incorrect or excessive use of the
The O sign is made by a recently dead patient's open mouth.
Obelisk is another name for the dagger mark.
An obelus is a sort of dash mark, or division sign
(a dash with a dot above and below), used to mark passages in a
text that are doubtful or corrupt. The word derives from a Greek
word for "spit" or "pointed pillar", which also gives us
Oboe is a radar navigation system in which a plane
flies in circles while two ground stations measure the distance
to a beacon on the plane. Oboe is a radio key word for
O, which in turn refers to the shape of the path of the plane.
Octothorp or Octothorpe is a recently coined term
for the # sign, more often called "sharp", "pound", "hash",
"mesh" or "crosshatch". By the way, octo means "eight", but
aren't there nine little boxes made by the shape rather than
eight? Well, apparently, this is counting the number of "points"
or line endings in the figure. See
the Octothorpe Story.
An O-ring is a rubber ring used to seal joints and is, you might
think, a perfect example of reduplication.
Omega is the name of a letter of the Greek alphabet, whose
name means "big O".
An omega-head is a person who cannot be made to understand.
Any explanation aimed at the person whizzes across the shoulder,
races around the head without going into it, and the proceeds
in the original direction, having traced out the shape of
Omegoidal refers to things (if any?) in the shape of
Omicron is the name of a letter of the Greek alphabet, but
its name actually means "little O".
P Celtic refers to those Celtic languages in which the
IndoEuropean "Qu" sound has become "P".
A P trap is a plumbing fixture, a section of pipe with
a "wedding ring trap" that fits directly beneath a drain.
Doesn't quite make a P to me.
Parallels is a name for the double vertical bar ||.
Pentalpha is another name for a pentagram or five
pointed star, and derives from the fact that such a star looks
like 5 capital alpha's.
A period was originally a a rhetorical term for a complete
phrase, only later coming to mean the marker that indicated the
end of a period. Thus, one could say that a period comes at the
end of a period.
A pilcrow is a name for the "paragraph" symbol ¶, or
reversed P. The etymology of this word is obscure, which is
as close as you can get an etymologist to say "I don't know" without
actually applying torture.
Pipe is the UNIX user's name for the symbol |, which
is used to connect the output channel of one program to the input
channel of another.
Pling is a name for the exclamation mark !.
Point is a name for the period symbol.
Pomega is a variant Greek letter, written as a lowercase
omega with an overbar, and also known in mathematics and
physics as "Curly Pi", while in TeX it is encoded as "\varpi".
Pound Sign is a name for the symbol #, which is
also called the number sign, hash mark, or hatch mark.
Q Celtic refers to those Celtic languages in which the
IndoEuropean "Qu" sound has become "Q".
The Q sign is made by a very dead patient's open mouth, and
The question mark is the sign ?, used to indicate
a question. It is supposed to have been a stylized form of
the letters Qo, an abbreviation of the Latin Quaestio.
In Spanish, you will find an inverted question mark begins
a sentence as well, better to allow the reader to apply the
distinctive questioning intonation immediately.
The question mark butterfly (polygonia interrogationis),
has a marking on each wing that suggests a question mark.
Quote Unquote is a suggestion that the following spoken
word or phrase would, in writing, be surrounded by quotation
marks to indicate the speaker's skepticism.
R Color is the addition of an R sound to a vowel.
R-less is a technical term for linquistics, and describes, for
instance, the pronounciation of words commonly used in New England;
the opposing term is R-full;
Rhotacism is a defective pronunciation or use of
the R sound, or the dropping of that sound at the end of
words as when you "pahk youh cah in Hahvahd yahd".
An S bend is a plumbing pipe in the shape of an S,
often evident in the design of toilets.
An S brake is a brake in the shape of an S, used
to slow down a pair of wheels;
An S bridge is, my friends in Wheeling swear, a kind of
bridge necessary at certain difficult points of geography, and
they say they have one there;
An S curve is any sort of double curve, especially
on a winding road. Sometimes such curves are called
ess curves, or we say the road essed.
An S hook is a piece of metal bent into the shape of an
An S trap is a plumbing pipe in the shape of an S.
An S twist is the twist in yarn induced by a
counterclockwise-spinning spindle, sometimes called a crossband twist.
An S wrench is a wrench that is slightly twisted, suggesting
the shape of a gentle S.
The Samian letter is named for Pythagoras, the philosopher
of Samos, who took the letter Y (really, the Greek form,
which was Upsilon, which looks like a Y that hasn't been
watered in a while), as a symbol of how, once one deviates
ever so slightly from the path of virtue, one wanders increasingly
far away - an apparently, virtue starts avoiding you too!
San is an obsolete Greek letter, about which so little is
known that it is not sure whether it differs from the also
Sampi is an obsolete Greek letter, which was kept around
for use in the 27 symbol alphanumeric code, where it had the
A Sawbuck is a ten dollar bill, because 10 is X in Roman
numerals, and X looks like the legs of a saw horse, which
at one time, when people actually sawed things, was called a saw buck.
Similary, a $20 bill is called a double sawbuck.
Screamer is a name for the exclamation mark.
A section mark is a stylized S, that is usually
printed as §, and used to designate a section of a text.
The semicolon sign ; is used to indicate a
shorter pause than that associated with a colon.
A separatrix is a forward slash sign, /.
A shilling sign is a forward slash sign, /, used in
prices in the old English pounds/shillings/pence system, as in
"In this size, 4/6", pronounced simply "four and six".
A sigma spire is a sponge spicule shaped like the
lower-case letter sigma.
Sigmate or Sigmoid is a sort of a gentler S
shape; in mathematics a generic sigmoid curve is flat, then
rises for a while, and levels off. In anatomy, there is the
sigmoid artery and the intestinal sigmoidal flexure.
Because, in the uncial script, the lowercase letter sigma looked
like the letter C, there are cases, especially in anatomy,
where the intended shape is actually that of a C and not
a Latin S or Greek Sigma.
Sigmation is the appending of the letter s to
a word, as when, in English, we form a plural, or indicate
a possessive, or contract "is" or "has".
Sigmatism is the excessive or incorrect use of the S
sound. How about a name for the excessive use of the sh sound
when an S sound is indicated? The youth of America has
fallen prey to a mouth-full-of-oatmeal pronunciation that includes
"shtreet", "shtrip", "shtraight", and other shtrictly shtupid
A Sigmodont is a member of a family of rats named for the
distinctive (capital) Sigma shape of the ridges of enamel
that appear on the crowns of worn molars (and rats do love to
wear out their molars!).
The Sigmoid Sinus is a Sigma-shaped sinus on each
side of the brain.
Sigmoidoscope - just to get a peek around the first bend of
the intestinal sigmoidal flexure, we have this ingenious
Siron is actually "S Iron", and is a strip of metal,
bent into an S shape, and pounded into the end of a railroad
tie to keep it from splitting.
Slash is a name for the symbol /.
A slant is a forward slash sign, /.
Solidus is a name for the symbol /.
Solmization, from "sol mi", is any method of assigning syllables
to the notes of the musical scale. The standard solmization is:
do (di) re (ri) mi fa (fi) sol (si) la (li) ti (si).
but, you will not be surprised to hear, there are several others!
Solresol is a universal language, ala Esperanto and Volapuk,
with the difference that the language is formed using only the
seven syllables of the standard solmization of the musical scale.
This means, in particular, that the language can be "sung",
although there is little likelihood that the random sequence
of musical notes will sound pleasant! The language was devised
by Jean Francois Sudre. Originally, he simply intended it as
a means of encoding a message in French into musical notes,
which could then be transmitting over a distance. During a
battle, he supposed, messages could be sent across the battlefield
using a bugle. After a time, Sudre invented an entire independent
language and grammar associated with his musical syllables,
and called the result the Universal Musical Language, although
it quickly became known as solresol, (which means "language"
in his scheme.). Words in this language were limited to at most
five syllables. One and two syllable words were for common words
and pronouns. The longer words were organized into topics according
to the first syllable. Sudre was able to demonstrate his language
by playing on the violin and having students announce the message
he was sending. The seven syllables of the Solresol alphabet
have been included in the Unicode system as U+E770 through U+E776.
In May, 2007, at a festival honoring Athanasius Kircher, a scene
from Romeo and Juliet was played in solresol!
Splat is a computer user's name for the asterisk *.
Star is a name for the asterisk *.
Stigma is the name for both the variant form of the Greek
letter Sigma that was used when it occurred at the
end of a word, and the ligature (combined letter form)
of Sigma and Tau.
Stop or Full Stop is a name for the period
A Swash is an ornamental doo-dad or curlicue added to
a letter; a swash font is whole set of such gaudy letters.
A T and O map was a medieval map, based partly on information
from Ptolemy, but presenting the world with Jerusalem at the center,
Asia on top, with Europe and Africa filling the bottom left and
right quarters, and a vast ocean surrounding the whole. The land
masses were divided by waters that formed a rough T shape,
and the surrounding ocean was the O.
A T ball is a gentle introduction to baseball, in which
the ball is placed on an inverted T rather than being pitched
at the little batter, who would probably run away in terror.
A T bandage is a T-shaped bandage used around the waist
A T back is a skimpy bathing suit which looks like a
T in the back.
A T bar is a metal bar having a cross section of a T,
or a little piece of "body jewelry" used in piercing, or
a kind of ski lift, or a kind of car roof that allows twin sunroofs,
or a kind of strap on a shoe.
A T beam bridge is a reinforced concrete bridge made of a
single slab whose cross-section at the supports resembles a series of
A T bevel is a tool with a long flat surface, and a
long pivoted handle joined to the middle of the surface. When
in its usual configuration, the tool looks like the letter T.
A T bolt is a bolt that is not rounded, but has a sharp
profile like a T.
A T Bone Steak is a cut of meat in which the embedded bone
forms a T.
A T Bone Crash is a car crash in which one car hits another
on the side, forming a T.
A T budding, also called a "shield budding", is a plant budding
in which an oval piece of bark bearing a scion bud is fitted into
a T-shaped opening in the bark of the stock.
A T Cart is an open 4 wheeled carriage with two seats,
and a body shaped like a T.
A T connector is a kind of electrical binding post;
A T cushion is the technical name for the removable
cushion in a stuffed chair, which looks like a very broad
and squat T;
A T dress is a variant of the T-shirt, but long enough
to be used as a dress;
A T formation is a way of positioning the offensive
players in football. Three running backs are placed in the
back field. The center, quarterback, and running backs then
form a T shape.
A T head bolt is a bolt with a flat head.
A T head pier is a pier in the shape of a capital T,
with a single walkway extending from the shore, which then
terminates in a transverse section.
A T hinge is a hinge in the shape of a capital T.
A T iron is a rod with a short crosspiece at the end, used
as a hook.
A T joint is an electrical connection used for joining a
branch conductor to a main conductor which continues beyond the
A T maze is a simple maze whose blind alleys end in
short left and right turns, so that it looks as though it
were constructed from a collection of T's, or, to
a computer scientist, constructed through recursive application
of the T function.
A T mycoplasma is a viruslike microorganism, in a shape
suggesting a T.
A T nut is a nut shaped like the head of a T bolt;
A T plate is a T-shaped plate used as a splice and
for stiffening a joint where the end of one beam abuts against
the side of another.
A T rail is a rail with a T-shaped cross-section.
A T top or T roof is a style of roof on a car, often
seen on Corvettes.
A T seawall is a thin concrete wall used to protect
against flooding; it is distinguished by having a significant
horizontal concrete supporting base, so that its cross-section
is similar to the letter T.
A T Shirt is so named because you can flatten
it out so that the arms of the shirt make the upper bar of
the letter T.
A T slot nut has a profile like the letter T which
allows it to be counter-sunk into a slot or groove, where it will
A T Square is a sort of drafting ruler shaped like
the letter T, useful for making perpendiculars.
A T strap is a T-shaped part of an open shoe formed
by a strap rising from the throat over the instep and fastening
to an ankle strap.
A T tube is a rubber tube in the shape of a T used to
drain the common bile duct.
A T wall is a movable concrete wall, made in sections, and
arranged to form security barriers. The wall rests on a
narrow base, and hence has the profile of the letter T.
A T wrench is a T-shaped wrench consisting of a handle
with a socket that fits on a nut.
Tau was once the last letter of the Greek alphabet, and hence
signified the final or last of a series. It also, apparently, was
originally written more like an X.
A Tau is the American toad fish, batrachus tau, which
has markings on its body in the shape of the letter T.
A Tau Cross is a crucifix shaped like the capital Greek
letter Tau which, oddly enough, looks just like T.
A tee is a three-way pipe joint shaped like a T,
a metal bar or beam with a T cross-section, or a Unix
command tee which splits the output stream into
two, the way a T-pipe would do to water.
A teetotaller is a person who completely abstains from
alcohol. The tee- prefix is meant to emphasize the
T in "total". It is not spelled teatotal
and does not mean the person drinks nothing stronger than tea!
A teetotum is a small top with four sides, marked with
letters indicating outcomes. The top has a large T on one
side, which gives it its name. The T stands for the Latin
totum and means the player takes all of the
prizes in the pot.
The Tetragrammaton is the four letter name of God, usually
transliterated as JHVH or YHWH. The name is
supposedly "ineffable", but the fact that ancient Hebrew didn't
consider vowel sounds important enough to write down is off-putting
enough for me.
Thorn was the name for an old English letter representing
the "th" sound.
A tilde is the wavy line symbol ~.
A tittle is a very small diacritical mark or accent.
It is used in the phrase "down to the last jot and tittle",
to express the idea that even the tiniest details have been
Trigamma is a backformation from "Digamma", invented
by mathematicians. Its written form resembles a capital F
with three bars on the right. Mathematicians had already
named a Gamma function, and a related Digamma function, and
needed a name and symbol for a third, related function.
Twiddle is a name for the wavy line symbol ~.
U is the only primary vowel (we ignore "sometimes Y and W")
whose name begins consonantly. The sound of a U is really "oo",
but it has acquired the name "yoo". Thus, we say "an A, an E, an I,
an O", but then we must say "a U", when in a better and more logical
world, we'd be saying "an oo"! Another odd thing about U is that
it began life as a V; it's not just that the Romans found it too
hard to make a curved U on stone, they just didn't have the letter;
V did double duty as consonant and vowel. Later, U began to be used
as a separate representation for the vowel sounds that had been part
of V's job.
A U Bolt is a metal bolt in the shape of a U.
A U Lock is a bicycle lock in the shape of a long U,
often found keeping a bike rack from being stolen.
A U Rail is a U shaped rail;
A U shaped bottom is what happens when the stock market
drops far, stays down for a while, and then comes back up.
A U Stirrup is a stirrup for reinforced concrete in the
shape of a U.
A U Trap is a section of pipe in the shape of a U
for catching wedding rings and blocking noxious sewer gas;
A U Tube is a glass or plastic tube in the shape of a U;
A U Turn is a reversal of direction, usually while
driving a car.
A U Valley is a valley with a wide rounded bottom,
formed by the slow erosive action of a glacier rather than
An umlaut is a pair of dots that are a diacritical mark
in German, used to indicate a modification of the sound of
certain vowels, and equivalent to following the vowel by the
letter e, as in Händel which is properly
transliterated as Haendel.
Upsilamba is a word invented by Vladimir Nabokov in
Invitation to a Beheading, as a sort of archetypal
obsolete letter of the alphabet, something whose rarety
and obscurity represents the occasional unexpected surprises
Uzzard is an obsolete name for the letter Z.
The V in cricket is the area of the field that falls between
mid on and mid off.
V-6 and V-8 refer to car engines in which 6 or 8
cylinders are arranged in a "V" pattern.
A V aerial is an antenna shaped like a "V".
V beam radar is a height finding radar that emits a
vertical beam and another at 45 degrees.
A V belt is a belt with a V shaped cross section which
engages a similarly shaped groove in a pulley.
A V block is a steel block with a V shaped groove used
in machine tooling.
A V bob is a strong frame shaped like an isosceles triangle,
turning on a pivot at its apex, and used as a bell crank to change
the direction of a main pump rod.
A V bottom is a sailboat that is broad and shoal with a bottom
in the form of a flat V.
V connection is, of course, a connection in the shape of a V.
Actually, this is a technical term in electrical networks that is more
often called an open delta connection, and is used to temporatily
supply three-phase power from two single phase sources. On wiring diagrams,
the wires that produce this connection are drawn as a V.
A V gear is a herringbone gear.
A V guideway is a slotted path, with V-shaped
indentations in the sides; a weight-bearing pallet is placed
in the path. It has corresponding V-shaped projections
which keep it firmly held within the path. It then glides
along the path, carrying some load.
A V hook is the V shaped opening of an eccentric
rod in a steam engine.
A V hut is a primitive hut in the shape of an inverted
A V moth has a mark on each wing in the shape of a V.
V neck is the name for shirts with an angular neck opening.
A V notch is a V shaped notch in a weir used to
measure water flow.
A V particle is a subatomic particle named for the shape
of its track in a cloud chamber.
A V pug is a moth which has a mark on each wing in the
shape of a V.
A V roof is a peaked or gabled roof.
An V shaped bottom is what happens when the stock market
drops far and then immediately comes back up.
A V-shaped comb is a comb on some domestic fowl with two
hornlike sections that form a V.
A V sign is the signal for "Victory", made by holding two
fingers up to form the V shape.
A V stern is a square stern with the transom inclined from
A V tail is a kind of V-shaped tail on an airplane that
is also known as a ruddervator!.
A V thread is a screw thread of 60 degrees.
A V tool is a tool for cutting grooves.
A V vat is a funnel box.
Vee is slang for a five dollar bill, because in Roman numerals, the
letter V indicated the number 5.
Vel, from a Latin word for "or", is another name for
the symbol ||, or parallels, the pair of vertical
lines that are used to indicate a logical "or".
A Vinculum is an underline or overline used to indicate
that a set of terms are to be grouped.
A Virgule is a name for the backslash.
Volle is a diacritical mark used in some Scandinavian words.
It's a small o shape that appears above certain vowels.
W is the only letter with a long name; rather than one
syllable, it's an extravagant three! Moreover, it's the only
name that makes sense: "Double U". Then again, it doesn't make
sense. You can say U twice as long for an hour, and you'll never
hear a W sound it in. And then there's the tragic fact that
web site addresses begin with "www", taking a good nine syllables
W is that letter that, back in the old days, was purported
to be a vowel, as we learned when memorizing the list "A, E, I, O, U
and sometimes Y and W"; not a one of us knew a word that had a
W as a vowel in it. Feverish contemplation of this matter got
no further than the possibility that maybe it inherited its vowelity
from the U that a W is two of. But finally, it was learned that
in Welsh (not English, mind you!) the W is indeed a favored vowel,
and that lunatic English people, attempting to pass off Welsh as
a special case of English, inserted W into the list of vowels.
A W Engine is an internal combustion engine with three
sets of cylinders arranged side by side in three planes so
that a cross section would have the shape of a W.
Wen is the name of an old English letter that had
a shape similar to a lower case "p", and was replaced by
the letter W.
Wye is supposed to be the preferred spelling of the name
of Y, although a case could be made for "Why", "Wie", or "Wy".
An X chair is a folding chair shaped like an X.
This uncomfortable arrangement has actually been manufactured
for thousands of years.
The X chromosome and the Y chromosome are the two versions
of the sex chromosome. They actually look like the letters
X and Y; the male sex chromosome is missing a whole
bunch of stuff (no comments, please), which makes a "male" sperm
enough smaller and lighter than a female sperm to allow for
sex selection via sorting.
X height measures the size of a font in terms of
the height of a letter like lowercase X that doesn't have
an ascender or descender.
X-ing is a visual pun for "crossing", because of "X's"
convenient shape. Someone who has left or died can be "X-ed" out.
X legs are legs that seem to bend inward at the knees,
sometimes called "knock knees". German has the same term,
An X stretcher is a pair of support bars supporting other bars
or joints, and forming an X.
Y: In several European languages (Spanish, French, Romanian, Polish), the name
of the letter Y is essentially
Greek I, which points back to its heritage from is the Greek letter Upsilon,
which originally had a soft u sound, and then shifted to a y sound.
The Romans used the letter Y to represent Upsilon when they transliterated
certain Greek words.
A Y box is a box containing three wires of equal resistance
which meet at a point, used in a three-phase electrical system.
A Y branch is a piece of pipe shaped like a Y that allows
two pipes to join into a single system.
A Y bridge is a bridge constructed by a miserly town
such as Zanesville, Ohio, in the form of a Y, forcing
traffic to merge and diverge on the constricted bridge, and,
in the deluded minds of the city elders, constituting a folly
worthy of tourist attention.
Y cross - a kind of passing play in football.
A Y curve is a schematic graph suggesting a situation in which
some quantity begins decreasing, then drops drastically to zero, rises
again suddenly and then gradually increases back to its original level,
tracing out the letter Y while doing so.
Y front is the term used for the pattern made by the elaborate
flaps on jockey briefs, which theoretically may be used when
urinating. The Y is actually upside down.
A Y gun is a gun on an anti-submarine ship, shaped
like a Y so that it can fire depth charges on both sides
of the ship simultaneously.
A Y junction is a place where three roads meet.
A Y level is a surveyor's level with a telescope
supported in Y shaped rests.
The Y ligament is the iliofemoral ligament, which has the
shape of a Y.
A Y moth has Y markings on its wings.
A Y point is the neutral point for a three phase
electrical circuit. The diagram of the circuit's behavior
looks like a Y near the neutral point.
A Y theodolite is a surveying instrument which is shaped
like the letter Y to provide support for the telescope.
A Y tile is tile shaped like a Y, and used for drains
A Y track or Wye track is a railroad siding
shaped like a Y which allows trains coming from either
direction to turn off.
Y tube is a type of vacuum discharge tube designed by William
Crookes for his experimental work.
A Y turn is the sharp, economical way of turning a car
around by going into reverse and turning at the same time until
the back of the car has gone 90 degrees, then turning the front
wheels and going forward in the direction from which one came.
The track of the car is similar to the letter Y.
Y worm is a worm which looks like a Y, but is actually
two worms, a large female and a small male, in permanent
Yogh is an old English letter you should be glad you don't
have to pronounce. Remnants of it show up as "gh" in words like
"light" and "tough".
Ypsiloid and Ypsiliform mean "Y shaped", although
they actually refer to the name Upsilon and the shape
of the capital form of this letter (which is usually rendered
as a Y with drooping branches).
A Z bar or Z beam or Z iron is a metal
construction unit or angle iron with a cross section like a Z.
A Z bed is a portable bed which folds up into a
A Z crank is a crank in the shape of the letter Z.
A Z fold is a brochure made by printing on both sides
of a single sheet of paper, which is then folded into thirds.
A Z-plasty is a surgical technique in which cuts are
made in a Z shape so that the cuts, once stitched up,
have less stress and heal more easily.
A Z twist is the twist in yarn induced by a clockwise-spinning
A Z'd frame is a custom car modification that lowers the car
by cutting the rear frame rails and rewelding them in a stretched
Zad is an obsolete name for the letter Z.
Zalambdodont is a group of insectivorous mammals
whose molars have a ridge shaped like a V or capital
Zed is the English name for good old Zee. When Henry
Higgins sang "In France every Frenchman knows his language from
A to Zed." I thought he said every Frenchman knows his language
may transcend, because I'd never heard of Zed before.
To zed about is to zig-zag, and reflects the shape of the
Zedland is a joking reference to the English counties of
Devonshire, Dorsetshire and Somersetshire, where in colloquial
speech the "S" sound is replaced by a "Z".
Z-plasty is a surgical procedure for treating scar tissue,
using a Z shaped incision. I guess Sergeant Garcia was the
guinea pig in the development of this technique.
Sometimes, a plausible but erroneous etymology exists:
The H bone or Aitch bone is the hip bone of a cow.
not shaped like an H and the name doesn't come from H in
any way. Etymologically, the name comes from nache bone or
buttock bone, and lost the initial n in the same way as
napple became apple.
Thole - is a T-shaped hole cut into
high-sided wooden rowboats for the oars. However, the name
does not come from T-hole but is an old
English word ultimately related to the German word
"dulden" which means "to bear" a burden. (Thanks to Dick Seabrook.)
Not quite worthy of the list are:
a G string isn't shaped like a G, but no one seems to know
quite how it got its name.
Gamma rays were simply the third kind of radiation to be detected from
the newly discovered element radium. And, at least in Greek, Gamma is the third
letter of the alphabet.
Gee Pole refers to a pole used to steer a sled.
Ineffable - Mike Lambert wants to know if the ineffable
name is the one that can't be used in an "effing" expression...
I thought we had work to do!
K gun - merely a model designation for a Vickers machine gun.
You can go to
the wordplay home page.
Last modified on 03 January 2013.