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Oblong, A Lost Word

by George W. Hervey (New York)
The Royal Arch Mason - Fall 1980

Many amateur mathematicians who try to maintain dutiful interest in elementary geometry probably wonder why the supposedly common word "oblong" meets very little use in ordinary English conversation. Ask visitors separately to identify the shape exemplified by a certain picture hanging on one's living room wall. Quite frequently comes the response, "Well, that is not a square though definitely rectangular. " A formal report on the reasons therefor has undergone protracted delay. Facts were missing about whether Americans during some bygone period had been familiar with this neglected yet logically acceptable term. After eventually querying the well known author James R. Case, the needed preliminary information began to unfold.  

Past Geographical Distinction  

There was indeed a unique precedent - geographical. A trustworthy account appears in George Lounsbury Rockwell's History of Ridgefield, Connecticut (1927). Once the British took over New Netherlands from the Dutch in 1664, according to his research an existing boundary dispute intensified between Connecticut and the newly named New York. Flaring and subsiding at irregular intervals, the matter never achieved complete resolution until the 1880-81 congressional session following positive action by the two state legislatures concerned. Tacit in the agreements, a secondary feature attracts attention because citizens in the sparsely settled colonial provinces learned back in 1731 that under mixed amicable and protesting circumstances New York had exchanged Greenwich, Stamford, and an additional small area for a strip a little to the west, approximately two miles wide and fifty-three miles long.  

Beginning early in the eighteenth century, The Oblong drew Quaker visitors from near and far locales. They came on invitation to attend annual meetings typically lasting ten days. Adds Case, "The region has changed; the very few who know the story employ the old designation very sparingly." So, despite the former widespread recognition the local disuse integrates with like discernible omissions in formal educational training.  

Euclid's Prejudice  

Before the demand for public schools increased enough to warrant their large-scale establishment in the United States numerous affluent fathers sent away promising sons, mainly at age fourteen years, to reputable academies or institutes. All such maintained higher quality curricula than did the more prevalent boarding schools. Most are long gone; some prominent survivors prepare their students for entering leading universities. From the outset all the old-time headmasters of course recognized mathematics to be both an art and a science. At mid-nineteenth century the available printed material for complementing classroom instruction patterned on Elements of Geometry and Trigonometry, by A.N. Legendre, a French work favored in Europe. Some American critics thought the adaptations laid too much stress on how, not enough on why. An outright domestic edition bearing the same title and author's name, published in New York, 1864, represented an earnest effort to overcome the imbalance.  

Charles Davies, a Columbia College professor, the credited revisionist, enlarged the descriptive content and eliminated unduly complicated diagrammatic expositions. Altogether the changed comparative emphases still endure to a possibly unrealized extent although the major constituent subjects no longer receive practical coverage in a single book. With respect to plane geometry, a little digging in Sir Thomas L. Heath's three-volume Euclid's Elements, Translation and Commentary, Second Edition, New York, 1925, brings to light a remarkable troth. The famed Greek scholar (circa 300B.C.) defined an oblong as "that which is right-angled and not equilateral," but then avoided perpetuating the already well known word in the included demonstrations. Intentional or not, modem text writers resist the urge to undermine the consequent deeply rooted custom by calling a spade a spade.  

An erudite individual's ability to answer "oblong" if interrogated a second time merely points up the noun's slippage from routine vocabularies. Sometimes a rarely detected exception even combines with misuse. For example, a well-intentioned commercial producer who tries to relate the two dimensional figure to a pasteboard box containing a purchasable grocery item goes astray by supplying three measurements. Here an alert reader might interject that technical lapses seem inconsequential considered beside oblong's independent, free and easy adjectival connotations. Unsupported by requisite data, the suggestion leaves room for further observation concerning the western world at large. Apparently a visitor can spend months in Britain, Canada, or U.S.A. without noticing a single application.  

Oblong Square  

Citable instances onward from 1400 A.D. evidently conformed to much older origins. Striving at interpretive consistency, the redoubtable Dr. Samuel Johnson (1709-1784) in Dictionary of the English Language gave priority to the concise meaning "longer than broad." Among past renowned writers at least a few never hesitated to choose oblong for conveying the same or a closely similar understanding.  

Benjamin Franklin's friend Voltaire (1694-1778) aptly serves illustration. A lifelong inclination toward logical concepts enabled him to say in Philosophic Transactions: "There is nothing immutable but geometry; all things else undergo incessant variation." Equally adept at pushing rigor aside for needed qualitative phraseology, the revered Frenchman narrated in The Man of Forty Crowns: "You have proposed to furnish the houses in town with what water they want, to deliver us at length from the shame and ridicule of hearing water cried about the streets, and of seeing women inclosed within an oblong hoop carrying two [filled] pails, both together of [some] thirty pounds weight up to a fourth story." By choosing oblong to modify hoop Voltaire barred future puzzlement over alternative expressions that hung on into the nineteenth century's first half.  

Sir Walter Scott (1771-1832) contributed unwittingly to the interpretive difficulties. Writing in stride the novel Waverly, the versatile Edinburgh native saw nothing abstruse connected with mentally recalling Doune Castle: "It was in form an oblong square, of size sufficient to maintain a large court at the centre. The towers at each angle of the square rose higher than the walls of the building." Foreign to mathematical terminology, the two stressed portions evolved from a grass-roots inception to colloquial respectability two centuries or more before Scott attained literary prominence.  

Until someone offers persuasive different information an inquirer can justifiably infer custom dictated "oblong square" to stand somewhat indefinitely for "an oblong, possessing certain intrinsic properties borne also by a square." "Each angle of the square" reaffirmed the partial mutuality through recognizing both parallelograms contain right angles at the corners; the idiom defies complete conversion to modern vernacular. Unvoiced, both added implications contemporary hearers readily grasped. Best interpreted, the very necessity for the elaborations adduces a too easily overlooked lesson. Contrary ill-advised efforts to shorten or to simplify occasional strangely sounding expressions indited long ago by master craftsmen arc destined to end up wanting.

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