Saturday, February 07, 2009

The Fabiform Uglies

In trying to find a word to offer up this week, I mentioned to Spencer that I was on “F.” Ultimately, I chose not to use his suggestion, fatty fatty two-by-four for several reasons, including that it isn’t really a word. It has its place in the English language, I’ll admit, but that place is not on this blog.

And so then I threw something together about beans. Enjoy!
fabiform (FAB-i-form) — adjective: bean-shaped.
I seized upon this word mostly because it reminded me of an article I saw in a women’s magazine in which the various forms of the female body were symbolized with fruit: a pear, an apple, a banana for the skinny girl, a strawberry for some body type I can’t remember. There might have been a coconut in there. The diagram made me think of other produce shapes that would be particularly tragic for a young lady’s body to resemble. (The rutabaga and the durian spring to mind.) Realistically, the three or four times this word gets used in a given year are probably more likely to be in description of kidneys than human bodies. Peter Bowler makes the association in his entry on the word in The Superior Person’s Second Book of Weird and Wondrous Words with the following example sentence: “And I’d like you to meet Brett and Wanda, and their children Jamie and Cass — round here we call them the Fabiform Four.”

Fabiform is an odd word in that I understand what it means despite the fact that no singular “Ur” bean shape exists. Lima, garbanzo, soy, jumping — all different shapes. This word fabiform should mean about as much as “He look-a like a man,” and yet I feel most people would accurately interpret it as meaning rounded, curved, small overall and perhaps with one side having slightly more of a paunch than the other.

The word is tragically underused, it appears. A Google search suggests that I might have actually meant fabriform and then just tosses out a bunch of pages associated with a Wikipedia user named Fabiform. (Mr. Fabiform has this to say about himself: “What can be deduced from my username? 1. I have a copy of the complete OED. 2. I am bean-shaped.”) There’s a hit at the online Merriam-Webster, but it tragically only takes you to this page.

Well-documented or not, the word comes from the Latin faba, meaning either “bean” or “broad bean,” depending on the dictionary. (Funny how the addition of the word broad makes the definition more specific in this case.) Remember when I said that we lack an “Ur” bean? The broad bean just might be the one to win that title. It is green — kind of a beany green, really — and it has an irregular, lumpy yet rounded shape. In a word: fabiform.

The broad bean is known by various names, I’m guessing because people hate the bean itself and the name needs to be changed every century to trick new people into eating it. Hannibal Lector, appropriately, was the first I ever heard to refer to these fabiform uglies as fava beans, and this name clearly resulted from the “B”-to-“V” spelling switch that happens so often in translation. (Yes, by the way, the literal translation of fava bean is “bean bean.”) Other terms include field bean, bell bean, tic bean, or horse bean, the last because some people are wise enough to realize that humans shouldn’t eat these and would be better off feeding them to grazing, hoofed things. (Note: My theory about the multiple names may be incorrect. The delicious and altogether beloved garbanzo bean in actually known by even more names, at least according to Wikipedia. Among them: Indian pea, Ceci bean, Bengal gram, unprocessed hummus bean, chana, kadale kaalu, sanaga pappu, shimbra, Kadala. Another note: I made one of those up.)

Previous words of the week:


  1. This is completely unrelated to your post, for which I hope you can forgive me. As my favorite wordplay-loving journalist blogger, I was hoping you might weigh in: intentional hilarity? Or just something that slipped through??

  2. Good headline writers generally enjoy packing as much as they possibly can into a few words, so I doubt the person who wrote it would have missed the joke. There's a chance it could have slipped past the person down the chain who approved the print. That's my guess, anyway.

  3. AIUI, "fava bean" is a borrowing of Italian "fava", which is of course derived from the Latin.

  4. and of course it's thought that "fava" and "bean" are related