Circle, square, triangle—boring! There are so many more shapes than those in nature. Good thing there’s a rich vocabulary of fancy scientific words for shapes. Most of them don’t get much use, which is a shame. Get to know a few of these, and describe your world with lexical flair.
1. Acicular // Needle shaped
Acicular is used by botanists to describe leaves with a long pointy shape and by mineralogists in talking about crystals.
2. Acetabuliform // Saucer shaped
3. Anguilliform // Eel shaped
4. Calceiform // Slipper shaped
5. Clithridiate // Keyhole shaped
Not much seen outside of 19th century descriptions of invertebrate fossils, but fun to say.
6. Cochleate // Snail shaped
Plant parts or chemical compounds can be cochleate—rolled into a spiral like a snail shell. Also cochleate, the spiral tube in your inner ear known as the cochlea.
7. Fabiform // Bean shaped
8. Falcate // Sickle shaped
9. Flabellate // Fan shaped
Insects with flabellate antennae look like they have two little fans attached to their head. If you prefer Greek roots over Latin, another word for this is rhipidate.
10. Hastate // Spearhead shaped
Leaves or anatomical structures that look like spearheads are hastate, from the Latin hasta for spear.
11. Hippocrepiform // Horseshoe shaped
Here’s a convenient word for horseshoe shaped … that takes just as long to say as “shaped like a horseshoe.”
12. Hordeiform // Barleycorn shaped
If it looks like a grain of barley, it’s hordeiform.
13. Ichthyomorphic // Fish shaped
Goldfish crackers aren’t fish, but they are ichthyomorphic.
14. Lachrymiform // Tear shaped
Apple seeds and watermelon seeds are lachrymiform.
15. Reniform // Kidney shaped
16. Scaphoid // Boat shaped
The most commonly broken bone in the wrist, the scaphoid, looks like a little boat.
17. Scyphoid // Cup shaped
The ancient Greek skyphos, a two handled drinking vessel, gives its name to cup-shaped objects such as jellyfish, of the biological class Scyphozoa.
18. Xiphoid // Sword shaped
From the Greek xiphos for sword. If you prefer Latin roots, there’s ensiform (from Latin ensis). The little piece of pointy cartilage at the bottom of your sternum where the lowest ribs meet is called the xiphoid process.
A version of this story ran in 2014; it has been updated for 2021.