Word of the Week: Skeuomorph

So the word you are looking for is not skeuomorph, it’s “broken visual metaphor.” It’s affectation, or perhaps kitsch. It is impedance mismatch. Whatever you decide to use, it is not there because it needs to be, or once needed to be, it is there simply because someone really likes the way it looks.

via Vox Fera – Fox Vera: Your Skeuomorph is Showing.

So, avuncular (unclelike), saturnine (sluggish), sybaritic (pleasure-loving), antediluvian (primitive), concomitant (accompanying), uxorious (fawning), lucubrate (laborious studying), vulpine (foxlike), fissiparous (fractious) and how about… skeuomorph?

How about skeuomorph (SKEW-oh-morf), anyway. With our last word of the week, you will remember, we had to take a minor, and I said temporary, break with Webster’s Fourth because it did not recognize my favorite definition of the word in question, fissiparous. This week requires a more disturbing breach from convention because Webster’s does not recognize skeuomorph at all.

More disturbing still is the dissonance achieved by first consulting the Internet at large for a definition, namely “a derivative object which retains ornamental design cues,” and then the august fellows (“Harrumph, harrumph! By Jove!”) at the Oxford English Dictionary, who drone, “an ornament or ornamental design on an artefact resulting from the nature of the material used or the method of working it, or an object or feature copying the design of a similar artefact in another material.”

By Mercury, they do have a way with words, don’t they?

Portion of iCal, calendaring software from App...

The iCal app, with skeumorphic leather trim. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The O.E.D. traces the word to at least 1889, when it appeared in answer to this plainly expressed, if dubious, sentiment: “The forms of ornament demonstrably due to structure require a name.” More recently, and helpfully, a 1979 article in the journal Nature provides a nimble usage: “So-called ‘skeuomorphs’ in architecture that involve conversion of originally necessary features into purely decorative patterns.”

Examples of these abound (e.g. spoke designs on automobile hub caps, digital cameras that make shutter-snapping sounds), though one has to be careful. Some presumed elucidators cite the use of shopping cart icons by online shopping sites, but that seems to miss the point; shopping carts were never “originally necessary features” for an online shopping site. A better digital skeuomorph, perhaps, is the ereader that keeps track of where a user would be in a paper version of a book.

I got this word from [deleted], who wrote to me about it after learning that I had been keeping a list of vocabulary words. He replied with the anecdote “I was pleased with myself recently when I correctly used skeuomorphic in a recent conversation. And by ‘correctly’ I mean I used it according to its definition and, more importantly, I said it aloud without stumbling over my own goddam mouth.”

But I got to thinking about it again just recently when I noticed a few blog posts employing the word to take a crap on Apple’s design aesthetic. I was struck especially because at least one of the commentators conjectures that her contemporaries were cobbing the concern completely, which seemed especially delicious because the relevant conversations were about design, which is almost all nonsense, anyway.

The upshot of the bloggery is that some Apple designers are grumbling about the skeuomorphic attributes of some of their software, for instance a note-taking app that looks like an actual notepad. These cranks say that the emphasis on such visual affectations — one presumably self-indulging former Apple employee referred to it as “visual masturbation,” a remark that was widely repeated — prevent the apps from being truly useful. (Apparently, the whole thing is Steve Jobs’s fault.)

For myself, I think there is a lot of grumbling to be done about digital design over all, and you could start by hanging anyone who refers to the design of a Web page or smartphone app as being “clean” or “fresh.” Upon my word, I have had enough of that.