August 2019


Nothing to do with the Alien quadrilogy (not an actual word BTW) – that’s a xenomorph. A skeuomorph is a derivative object that keeps non-functional ornamental design cues from structures that were inherent to the original. Nope, me neither.

Photo by  Bruno Nascimento

Okay, so in everyday words, it’s a thing that imitates another, older (or retro) thing, just for show. An example is the rivets in jeans – they used to be there to reinforce areas of denim trews where stitching might break. But obviously thread is much better these days, so now they’re only there because they look nice.

Skeuomorphs are most common on electronic gadgets – think the ‘Save’ icon in MS Word which is a picture of an old-school floppy disc (look it up kids). Or the noise your phone camera makes when you take a picture. It obviously isn’t coming from a mechanical shutter – but the skeuomorphic sound lets us know we’ve actually taken a picture. Having a quick look at my iPhone I can see at least three skeuomorphs:

  • the phone symbol itself: an old-fashioned handset

  • email: an envelope

  • the notes app: a yellow legal pad

  • the Facetime icon: an old-timey video camera.

I’m not sure what’ll happen when all the people who remember what these icons really mean are pushing up daisies though – maybe it’ll be time for some new designs?

The word itself was coined by one Henry Colley March who, I gather from Mr Google, was a researcher of some kind (this is very vague, sorry – but I couldn’t find much about him, except he wrote a book called ‘The Mythology of Wise Birds’ which would make a brilliant album name). Being as Hank was around in the 1890s, obviously he wasn’t using an iPhone. He came up with the term after looking at ancient artefacts like old pottery which had patterns carved in it to resemble a woven basket. He formed it from the Greek words ‘skéuos’ for ‘container’ or ‘tool’, and ‘morphḗ’ meaning ‘shape’.

(Extra special thank-you-muchlys to my friend Hannah Walbridge for telling me about this word at the weekend, which I’d never heard of before. So cheers Hannah.)


If something is apotropaic, it means it’s designed to avert evil. The word comes from the Greek – ‘apo’ means ‘away’, while ‘trópos means ‘turn’. There are lots of obvious apotropaic symbols and actions that we still use today, like horseshoes, rabbit’s feet (yuck) or knocking on wood.

Now, if you’re easily offended (a) why are we friends, and (b), you might want to stop reading now. Still here? Good. While I was researching this, quite far down the Google search page I noticed the heading ‘Genitalia, As Apotropaic’. Obviously, I had to click on it (god knows what targeted advertising I’ll be getting from now on). And according to this article, people have been waving their rude bits around for 1,000s of years to fend off bad stuff. The article says that exposing your ladygarden in ancient Greece could scare off devils, evil spirits and gods, attacking troops and dangerous animals, while simultaneously stopping whirlwinds and thunderstorms. If you did it in old-timey Russia you could calm the sea and/or see off a bear. Handy.

Trouser snakes also have an apotropaic function. Representations of winkies were often carved above doorways in ancient Greece (you wouldn’t want to bang your head on that doorframe), while in ye olde Japan there was a whole set of gods who were represented as massive dongs. These were erected (hee hee) on bridges and roads to stop evil spirits. Unfortunately when Western travellers got that far they were super offended and the Japanese took them down. Damn us oversensitive Westerners.

(PS If I die tomorrow and the police check my internet search history, please let them know that it was all in the name of research. Thanks.)

Read the other words of the week.