Thursday, November 19, 2015

Language of Confusion: Shapes

Sometimes I really have no ideas on what to etymologize. So I pick some random word and try to find some theme to build around it. This time I saw kind of a square so I’m like…shapes? Have I done that before? And it turns out no, I have not. So here we go!

Square first showed up in the mid thirteenth century, but only as a tool. You know, for measuring right angles...which makes me wonder what they used to make sure the right angle of the tool was in fact a right angle. Imagine that the first one that they used to measure out squares was off by just a little. For centuries, every right angle could have been eighty nine degrees. But I digress. Square the shape actually didn’t come around until the fourteenth century and actually came from the tool. Wow. Anyway, square comes from the Old French esquire/esquarre, and before that the Vulgar Latin exquadra and exquadrare. Those words are a mix of the classical Latin prefix ex-, out, and quadrare, which means to square. Gee, I never would have guessed. And quadrare is actually the origin word for quadrant, too because of course it is.

Circle showed up in the early fourteenth century actually meaning the shape this time. It comes from the Old French cercle, which means circle or hoop, and the classical Latin circulus, ring. And because they have rings in them is why a circus is a circus.

Cube is relatively recent, having shown up in the mid sixteenth century. It comes from the Middle French cube and classical Latin cubuscube, of course—and before that, the Greek kybos. I bet you can’t guess what that means. Anyway, that word can be traced even further back to the Proto Indo European keub, bend or turn. Oh, and apparently we have Greek dice to thank for bend/turn becoming associated with cubes.

Sphere showed up in the mid fifteenth century from the Middle English spere. A sphere back then was literally space; like, they thought that the earth was surrounded by a hollow sphere made up of outer space. I guess it made sense to them. Spere comes from the Anglo French espiere and Old French espere, and before that the classical Latin sphaera, sphere. And once again, the Romans took the word from Greek, where it is sphaira, also sphere. Before that, no one knows. Maybe they made it up when they came up with that ridiculous Earth-in-a-space-sphere idea.

Finally, cone, which has a fairly simple origin. It showed up in the mid sixteenth century from the Middle French cone and classical Latin conus, a cone or helmet peak. That also comes from Greek, where it’s konos, again, cone, and possibly before that the Proto Indo European ko, to sharpen. You know, since cones are sharp. Oh, and I’m not doing triangle. I’m assuming you know what tri + angle adds up to.

TL;DR: The Greeks named the shapes. And all squares could be off. Shut up, it might be true. Go measure all of them and prove it’s not.



  1. So, when did square come to mean someone who wasn't hip?

  2. Oh, come on, Alex. Everyone knows that since the 80s it's hip to be square.

  3. Well, I didn't know the Greeks had dice.

  4. The whole sphere thing had to do with everything outside of the earth was perfect while the earth was not. Cosmology was kind of limited when the church had control of it. (History of science--one of my favorite subjects.)


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