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Stories behind Words: oblong

www.wordle.netI’m sure I’m not alone in having really enjoyed reading this series so far, and one thing that’s struck me is how often ‘Dads’ seem to feature in people’s anecdotes on lexical encounters. Well, here’s yet another one …

My Dad, God rest his soul, was (unlike myself!) never much of a talker. Dad bought me my first ever big, chunky, English dictionary, and in the front page inscribed the message ‘To Kerry – many words, from a man of not many words’. No, Dad was much more the pensive type, which meant that when he did open his mouth, what he said was usually worth listening to. He was a talented engineer, leading a team of draughtsman in the design of military vehicles in an era when plans were drawn with pencils rather than mouse clicks. The concept of shape, therefore, was very significant for him, and when talking about this he would often express an inexplicable dislike for the word oblong. He had such an uncharacteristically strenuous aversion to the word that any mention of it would make his blood boil, saying things like ‘it’s a rectangle, a RECTANGLE for God’s sake … I can’t abide anyone saying oblong!’. As you can imagine, from such a quiet, considered individual, this reaction seemed so odd and has stayed with me all my life. So much so that, even now, I can’t bring myself to use the word for fear of him turning in his grave. I love words, I’ve even made a career out of writing about them, but whatever linguistic obfuscations I need to employ, I’ll go to great lengths to avoid using the word oblong!

In case you were wondering, oblong clearly doesn’t provoke a similar reaction elsewhere and shows no sign of disappearing any time soon. It’s been around for a very long time, alive and well in British English before Big Ben was even thought about. It in fact dates back to the 14th century which makes it, sorry Dad, much older than rectangle …

About Kerry Maxwell
Kerry Maxwell works as a freelance author and editor. Kerry is author of Brave New Words: A Language Lover’s Guide to the 21st Century (Pan Macmillan, 2007) and has been writing the Macmillan Dictionary BuzzWord column since 2003.

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  • But “oblong” doesn’t necessarily mean rectangular; it can also mean oval – see OED definition 1: “Elongated in one direction (usually as a deviation from an exact square or circular form); having the chief axis considerably longer than the transverse diameter”. That’s probably why your Dad took such a dislike to it, Kerry: the fact that it was non-specific.

  • Thanks Gillian – maybe so, but I think it was more that he just hated the sound of the word, it is a bit of a clumsy one – feels like you’ve got a ping-pong ball in your mouth when you say it!!

  • Why is oblong shape not used in classrooms anymore? It’s not shown on any charts with shapes or talked about in cartoons, etc. I am searching for the reason for its decline.

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