Saturday, October 25, 2008

In the Form of a "Why?!"

Perhaps there’s no worse word than the one that doesn’t necessarily mean anything, even in context. Like biweekly. Fucking useless. It can mean either “twice a week” or “every two weeks,” and even though the latter definition is probably the more popular one, you can never be sure what the word is supposed to mean when you hear it. You ask. You get it explained. You let valuable seconds get sucked up as the result of a needless communication failure.

Ask me about the time the newspaper advertised for biweekly columnists. Or, better yet, don’t.

This is the case with this week’s word, which I initially thought had one simple definition. Further exploration, however, took me through a quagmire of confusion, a dense jungle of ambiguity and finally dropped me at the stinking tar pits of uselessness, where logic and I both sunk into certain doom like slow-witted Brontosauruses who should have known better than to reach for that one leafy branch.

Below is the word and the various definitions I found online. Explanation to follow.
ypsiliform (ip-SIL-i-form) — adjective: 1. having the form of the capital letter “Y.” 2. having the form of the lower-case letter “u.” 3. having the form of a question mark. 4. having the form of a backslash.

So I initially picked this letter because I read somewhere — can’t remember where now — that it meant the third definition. I found this amusing. But upon going about writing this entry, the matter of defining ypsiliform became more complicated than that. Foremost, it’s not a word that appears in most dictionaries. More often than not, it appears in lists of medical terms, so I can only guess that there exists some ligament or bone or nerve that someone decided to force this word upon in description of it. Or perhaps there’s some blood worm that has a hooked tail that merited this description. That would be appropriate.

According to Wikitionary, however, the word has nothing to do with question marks. It comes from the name of the Greek letter upsilon — which is also known as ypsilon, apparently — and therefore means “resembling the letter upsilon.” Which would be great, if only upsilon can look like either of two letters of the Roman alphabet: when uppercase, an uppercase “Y”; when lowercase, a lowercase “u.”

Already, that’s a problem. “Y” and “u” look nothing alike. If they’re both upsilon, then there’s no way of knowing to which one ypsiliform refers.

So where the hell did notion of ypsiliform meaning “resembling a question mark” come from? I mean, the resemblance between ypsiliform and upsilon are close enough that there doesn’t seem to be any wiggle room. Again, I can’t remember where I first read that, but I believe it’s a result of the internet. You know, like all things. Check this definition out: It cites the 1913 Webster as defining the word as “resembling the ? in appearance; — said of the germinal spot in the ripe egg at one of the stages of fecundation.” Anyone who stumbled upon this in hopes of defining the word would naturally think that it mean “resembling the question mark,” but I actually think this happened as a result of this page not having properly coded the symbol for upsilon. It’s being told to show a character it doesn’t know how to show, and, consequently, it’s just showing a question mark instead. In short: The coding is saying “huh?” but unfortunately doing so in a manner that’s still sensical.

More proof: this definition, which also seems to be exhibiting bad coding and therefore offering the definition as “resembling the Greek letter” and then a “<” and then “UPSILON/” in form.” Looks like bad code to me. Free Dictionary’s definition for ypsiliform omits the symbol altogether. (I guess you get what you pay for.) And this website — which purports to be affiliated with Webster but I suspect isn’t — inserts a backslash: “resembling the / in appearance; — said of the germinal spot in the ripe egg at one of the stages of fecundation.”

All this being said, the true definition is probable “resembling the capital “Y” in form,” but for all the reasons listed above, this fact isn’t probably going to become any better understood. I feel like anybody else trying to look ypsiliform up will either check a few different places and be thoroughly confused or check one place and get the wrong definition and go through life misunderstanding the concept. Which is probably fine, because why would they ever need to use it?

The word, to me, is essentially useless, because even if I take a guess at what I think it actually means, I’d have no way of every knowing whether anyone else using it would be doing so with the same guessed-at definition that I’m using. I could say “Hey, Ida, could you pass me that hook? The ypsiliform one?” And Ida — if she even knew what the word meant — would reach and give me the hook shaped like a “u” and I’d have to berate her. “Ida, you stupid girl! I asked for the ypsiliform hook, and you’ve given me one that is most certainly not ypsiliform!” And I throw it at her and she’d have a “u”-shaped gash on her forehead.

Thus, this word sucks. Don’t ever use it.

You’d think I’d leave it at that, but I have one more major gripe against ypsiliform: It has synonyms. Yes, the word that doesn’t mean anything in particular is part of a family of other words that have the exact same definition, which, ultimately, is nothing. As long as you mentally blocking out all future usage of ypsiliform, shield yourself from these as well: ypsiloid, hypsiloid, upsiloid. They’re not listed, but I can only imagine that hypsiliform and upsiliform — if they exist — would also mean nothing as well.

What’s that? You like feeling abused by English? Well, for a chock-full list of self-defeating words — autoantonyms, as most people call them — see Wikipedia’s list of self-contradicting words.

Previous (and better) words of the week:


  1. i like ypsiliform!

    wikipedia's list didn't include my all-time favorite contradictory word: - which means red or green. so i added it.

  2. That's actually a good one. I'll use sinpole when word-of-the-week rolls back around to "S"... which is in, like, twenty weeks.