Saturday, January 24, 2009

Hot Cross Buns, So to Speak

Those of you who follow what I do here may remember my distress over the word ypsiliform, which can either mean “having the shape of the letter ‘Y’” or “having the shape of the letter ‘U.’”

In context, it’s practically impossible to tell which definition is correct, and, therefore, I concluded that the word was useless. Yes, I admit that the occasion on which someone needs to describe a thing as being Y- or U-shaped comes along rarely enough that the word would still be fairly useless even if the meaning were clear. Essentially, my complaint is like having a fear of sombrero-clad yetis — not of any legitimate concern but interesting to talk about anyway.

Yeti or no yeti, sombrero or no sombrero, I bring up this previously featured word-of-the-week because the one I’ve chosen to write about today is a lot like it in one way and nothing like it in another.
decussate (dee-KUSS-ayt or DEK-eh-sayt) — adjective: having the form of the letter “X”
Despite referring to a letter only one alphabetical slot over from the one that ypsiliform refers to — or two over, if you take the “U” definition — decussate manages to be an entirely more sensible word. It just means one thing, all the time. At times, decussate and its forms can refer to specific types of “X”-shaped formations — neurologically speaking, the crossing of nerve fibers; botanically speaking, certain leaf arrangements — but it always essentially means that thing: shaped like an “X.” Altogether a far superior word than ypsiliform.

According to the American Heritage Dictionary, decussate comes from a combination of decem, the Latin word for “ten,” and word for a common Roman coin,
the as. Specifically, the words married and had the baby decussis — literally “ten asses,” asses being the plural of as. (Amazing, I know.) The Roman number system — which we all learned in elementary school, for some reason — represented the number ten with an “X” and I’d imagine that the coin in question probably had an “X” on it at some point. Either way, the name eventually came to be associated with a criss-cross formation.

Useless though it would have been, I can only imagine how much better life would be if it meant “having the form of ten asses.”

Previous words of the week:


  1. Speaking of yetis, I just read the other day that it's illegal in Tibet to kill a yeti. I don't think anyone has ever been prosecuted for it, though.

  2. Anonymous11:52 AM

    I just a few minutes ago came across a word related factoid, and you were the first person I thought to share it with. The word "octopus" should not be pluralized into "octopi" as I've always been told. The correct word is "octopuses." The wikipedia entry on Octopus has a section on the grammar involved, but it is summed up with this sentence:

    "Fowler's Modern English Usage states that 'the only acceptable plural in English is octopuses,' and that octopi is misconceived and octopodes pedantic."

  3. Anonymous7:17 AM

    About "ypsiliform"... the only definition in the OED is
    "Shaped like the Greek letter upsilon; Y-shaped."
    That seems to straightforwardly indicate capital upsilon, especially considering the citation:

    1886 Encycl. Brit. XX. 417/1 The T-shaped gradually passes into the ‘ypsiliform’ figure.

  4. Nathan: Well, thank god for that.

    Pedro: Eh. I kind of resent anyone how says that "octopus" can only be pluralized in one way. It's standard practice to pluralize Latin-looking, "us"-ending words by sticking an "-i" on the root. Or just using "-es." Either way, you're being understood perfectly.

    Goofy: Allow me to explain. My troubles with ypsiliform arose from the fact that vast majority of dictionaries I looked at listed the word as being "shaped like an ypsilon — *-shaped," the the asterisk being a character that whatever website was just unable to display correctly. Thus, the vast majority of dictionaries gave no real answer to what shape the word referred to --- just like an ypsilon or upsilon, without saying whether it meant capital ("Y") or lower-case ("u"). Even more confusing, a lot of them represent the un-displayable text as a "?," which could easily be interpreted in context as meaning "question marked-shaped." As a result of this --- and the fact that the word is pretty obscure, and the fact that it can be spelled three different ways --- leads me to think that a lot of people could easily walk away with the wrong definition.

  5. Pedro, again: A bit more. That's not to say that "octopi" is correct. The actual plural, however, is "octopodes." But use it in casual conversation and you'll only end up sounding like someone who values being technically correct above being understandable.

  6. Anonymous10:05 AM

    Drew: I know what you're saying and I don't disagree. I'm just saying that it looks like anyone who actually uses the word knows what it means.

    about octopus: The word is borrowed from scientific Latin "octopus", not Greek, so saying that the actual plural is "octopodes" isn't exactly true. Anyway, only "octopuses" and "octopi" are in use as plurals in English, according to the OED; there are no occurrences of "octopodes" in context.