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Geologic Column
Words, Words, Words
Lisa Rossbacher

What do the words pterodactyl, malloseismic, gabbro, argillaceous and vitrifier have in common?

They are all “stump the champion” words in the movie Akeelah and the Bee, with the implication that all of them are unusual, unfamiliar and extraordinarily difficult to spell. (In fact, three of those five words also stumped the spell-checker on my computer.)

Geologists use lots of specialized words, and, befitting a science that covers the entire planet, the words come from all over the globe as well. The English-language geological vocabulary has borrowed words from Icelandic (geyser), French (roche moutonnée, nuée ardente), Croatian (karst), Italian (dolomite), German (horst, bergschrund), Indonesian (lahar), Irish (drumlin), Russian (Permian), Turkish (barchan), Hawaiian (pahoehoe), Spanish (bajada, playa), and Japanese (tsunami), among others.

Most geologists love the richness of the language they have learned to speak with ease, but a geological vocabulary can be intimidating. I once worked for someone with a nonscience background who delighted in introducing me as a “fluvial geomorphologist.” He always pronounced the words slowly, one syllable at a time, wrinkling his nose and wiggling his fingers, as though the concept was something he didn’t want to touch. In a meeting, I once referred to something as “interstitial,” and he reacted with the same gesture. “In-ter-sti-tial?” he asked. “Is that a word you geologists actually use?” Yup. And proud of it.

In fact, I occasionally find the need to guard against a certain feeling of elitism. Geoscientists are in a fairly small group of people who can describe things as phaneritic, diagenetic, pyroclastic, porphyritic or oolitic. We may be the only group of people who can use words like orogeny, décollement and penecontemporaneous without snickering. We also know that aa is a perfectly good word in Scrabble. (My spell-checker balked at nine words in this paragraph.)

Thirty years ago, the American Geological Institute’s Glossary of Geology was a staple of every professional office and academic department. A well-thumbed copy — usually with “Do Not Remove” written on the cover — was a major reference source for anyone reading or writing geoscience material. Today, the Glossary is in its fifth edition, and the hardcover version weighs in at 6 pounds and 800 pages. The book has more than 39,000 entries. Based on the specific definition of a “word,” all of Shakespeare’s plays and poems combined use a vocabulary of between 20,000 to 25,000 words.

The Glossary is also available online, for about a third of the book’s price. However, definitions are available online from a variety of other sources, from dictionaries to individual Web sites to Wikipedia. Whether you trust these definitions as much as the Glossary is a different question, but information about the meaning of these terms is readily available from a variety of sources.

Geological terminology is voluminous, in part because it is precise, but when geological terms become part of the common vocabulary, they lose precision. The word tsunami is an excellent example. When the Sumatra-Andaman earthquake occurred on Dec. 26, 2004, off the coast of Indonesia, most of the people who knew the word tsunami either were earth scientists or people who had taken at least an introductory course in the subject. When the story was first reported, newspapers as venerable as The Washington Post played it safe by calling the event a “tidal wave.” Very few media sources, including my hometown Fredericksburg, Va., newspaper The Free-Lance Star, were brave enough to actually use the word tsunami.

Since that catastrophic event two years ago, tsunami has become part of the popular language, and the word is often used in ways that are distinctly imprecise. The popular media uses tsunami to describe any major coastal flooding, and sometimes any natural disaster that is perceived as being as destructive as the Indonesian event. For example Hurricane Katrina’s impact on the Gulf Coast was called “our tsunami.”

NewsBank, Inc. has a database that includes 764 U.S. newspapers. In 1996, the word tsunami was used 755 times. In the last 12 months, there were more than 17,000 references. I’d say this word is firmly embedded in the popular consciousness, although it will be interesting to see how long this awareness endures. Now, if we could just get reporters and copy editors to remember that tsunami is spelled the same, in both its singular and plural forms….

The language of geology is rich in its origins and meanings, and our culture would be enriched if more of these words make their way into everyday language — preferably without a major natural disaster to introduce them. Meanwhile, geologists continue to benefit from the usefulness of the vocabulary available to us, and we will continue to need confidence, experience or good reference materials to be sure we are spelling technical words correctly, because normal spell-checker software is no help.

Where’s Akeelah when we need her?

Spoiler alert for Akeelah: The only “stump the champion” geological word that is misspelled in the movie is the one you are mostly like to have gotten right.


Rossbacher, a geologist, is president of the Southern Polytechnic State University in Marietta, Ga.

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