Well, here’s another one of those Greek words. And it isn’t going to win any beauty contests, is it? That awkward k up front, that weird euo sequence – where the heck else do you find that? – and of course the ph at the end. You know it’s Greek because of the morpheme morph, which refers for form or shape, but morph always seems a little clumsy, perhaps because of echoes of Murphy (as in bed and ‘s Law) or pehraps because it seems like what you’d say if you had a sock stuffed in your gob.

But, now, by the by, why the ph anyway? I mean, we’re addicted to that weird little digraph – the New York Times tried unilaterally to replace it with f in the earlier 20th century and had to give up. Italian has successfully replaced it with f, though the spelling convention – and a number of borrowed Greek words – came by way of Latin. And why did the Latins spell it that way? Well, it seems to have reflected the way the Greek letter phi was pronounced at the time – as [p] plus [h] rather than, as it later came to be, as [f]. So it was something that arose from the nature of the source material, and then came to be an ornament. And now it’s used in words like phat and phishing in reflection of that convention even though they’re not derived from Greek (phat most likely came about as a respelling of fat, not as a shortening of emphatic). So it’s sort of like those seams that used to be painted on nylon stockings – an ornament there just as a reflection of a necessity of a different material.

There are quite a few things in the world that are like ph, actually – things that are either ornaments made from necessities of the material (heightening the grain in a wooden item, perhaps, or making the stitching in a garment an ostentatious design feature) or, more usually, things that emulate necessities of another material that have taken on an aesthetic valuation (fake stitching moulded into vinyl and fake woodgrain on, well, all sorts of things). These things are called – have you guessed? – skeuomorphs. And it’s not because there’s something skewed about putting non-functional spokes on a car hub, or making a digital camera emit a loud synthesized click, or any and all of the 3-D styling you’re looking at on your computer screen right now, or stone carved to look like fabric (oh, the modernists hated skeuomorphy!), and you won’t be skewered by them either. Greek skeuos means “vessel” or “implement” (noun). And although the ancient Greeks produced a lot of them – any stone statue is one (or many) de facto unless it represents, well, stone, and even then it might be one – the word seems to have been invented in the late 19th century by an Anglophone. Who, of course, couldn’t make an English word out of English parts. Noooo! He had to borrow bits from another material – ancient Greek – because that was more aesthetically valued.

One response to “skeuomorph

  1. Pingback: deuteraesthetic | Sesquiotica

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