Updated: Mar 10

"Three straws on a staff

Would make a baby cry and laugh."

-Mother Goose (Goose et al. 1916)

“The skin of the head was pierced by fire, and out of the punctures came forth a moisture, part liquid, and part of a skinny nature, which was hardened by the pressure of the external cold and became hair.”

-Plato, Timaeus (1892)

A widespread feeling that long things are more exciting than short, relatively round things is evident in language, culture and the nature of many sexually selected traits in animals and flowering plants. Long, thin things are coupled semantically with heat in “the hot skinny” and “hot wire,” with fluidity in “thin air," "long winded" and “a drowning man will clutch at a straw,” disorder in "tail spin," light in “broad daylight" and "as the day is long," high-pitch in “a creaking gate hangs longest,” upwardness in “hanging by a thread” and “high tail it,” and outwardness in “wide open” and “thin out.” Length seems to indicate excitement, good or bad, in “on a string,” “a string of luck” "the short end of the stick” “strung out” and “joy stick.” Similar references are found in language of anger and sex, as in “my patience is wearing thin,” “you've gone too far this time” “carry a big stick,” “cross as two sticks,” “in the crosshairs,” “dipstick,” “the last straw,” and “longing for.”

Mother Goose relates length, fluidity and disorder in “Lengthening Days”: “As the days grow longer / The storms grow stronger.” Ovid says thinness and fluidity are alike in Metamorphoses:

You would have seen her members beginning to soften,

Her bones and her fingertips starting to lose their old firmness;

Her slenderest parts were the first to be turned to fluid:

Her feet, her legs, her sea-dark tresses, her fingers (for the parts with least flesh turn into liquid most quickly);

and after these; her shoulders and back and her bosom

and flanks completely vanished in trickling liquid;

and lastly the living blood in her veins is replaced by

springwater and nothing remains that you could have seized on (Ovid et al. 2006).

Animals seem to be very generally attracted to mixtures of roundness and length, such as sticks and stones, a feather in a cap, a fist and a thumb, a Yoyo, a lollipop, a head and a tie, the world on a string, a snake and an apple or a snake and a breast. The extent of roundness versus length as an appealing aesthetic mixture can be observed in the behavior of animals such as male bowerbirds when they decorate their bowers with objects and create such mixtures. The males use long sticks to make their bowers and collect other long objects as decorations which they place around the entrance, including colorful human spoons, clothes pins, pens and other things. Thus it's reasonable to suspect that bowerbird females have been consistently amused by length throughout the evolution of male courtship. The male also finds a variety of round objects (stones, shells, flowers, bottle caps, milk carton caps and rings, jewels and bead bracelets), which he mixes with the long ones around the entrance (based on online photos and videos), so it’s reasonable to conclude that females have been consistently choosing intricate mixtures of length and roundness. It’s also very difficult to explain from the usual sexual selection perspective how males and females both seem to have an attraction for human objects such as jewelry and bracelets without assuming similar aesthetic preferences between birds and mammals, somewhat like our mutual appreciation for music and dance.

Popular expressions which mix length with less exciting things include "by a long chalk," "to make a long story short," "all night long" "down to the wire" and "it's as broad as it is long."

Humans and other animals also have an apparent affinity for combinations of crosses and circles which can be thought of as similar to that for mixtures of long and round objects. Semantic examples include “X marks the spot,” “cross my heart,” “cross-eyed,” “look at crosswise,” “star-crossed,” “criss-cross applesauce,” “dot your i’s and cross your t’s, and “nail Jell’O to a cross.” Crosses probably make the expressions more exciting, and contrast with the less exciting circles to form aesthetic sequences. Cultural examples include the skull and crossbones, the Celtic Cross, Tic-tac-toe, the cross and circle game and hot cross buns, which are small round cakes with a white cross made of icing, and the symbol XOXO, for kisses and hugs.


Works cited

Goose, Mother, and Blanche Fisher Wright. “The Real Mother Goose.” Apple Books. 1916.

Ovid. “Metamorpheses.” Trans. Charles Martin. Western Literature: The Norton Anthology. Vol. 1. 8th ed. Ed. Sarah Lawall. New York: Norton, 2006.

Plato. The Dialogs of Plato. Translated Benjamin Jowett. United States, Scribner, 1892.

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