Geologically speaking

Today we have a guest post from Petrea Mitchell

I minored in geology – that is, it was my secondary area of concentration at college. Much of geology deals with things that were known and named well before they were codified as part of science, and it developed a habit for picking up local words rather than inventing its own for “new” phenomena. Thus, while you run into the usual load of classical-language derivatives when talking about things not visible at the surface of the earth, such as the strata (Latin, “layers”) recording various geological ages, or magma (Greek, “ointment”) waiting to erupt, you can also find words from all around the world.

For instance, when the early natural scientists wanted to study the effect of glaciers, they went tromping all over the Alps and picked up words like horn, which is from German, and used in geology to mean a peak shaped by glacial erosion. Glacier itself is French, as are arête (a sharp ridge resulting from erosion), cirque (a circular glacier), and moraine (a pile of debris formed along or at the end of a glacier).

Outcrops which are stuck under a glacier for a long time come out looking something like a shoehorn placed concave side up when the glacier retreats. One of these is a mouton roche (or so I was taught, though I’ve also seen it as roche moutoneé) or “rock sheep”.

But there is room for other areas to contribute to ice-related geology. Out in the tundra (originally a Russian word), repeated cycles of freezing and thawing can form hills with icy cores, called pingoes, from a Greenlandic word for “small hill”.

[Tundra was borrowed from Russian, but originally comes from the Kildin Sami word tū̄ndra, the genitive form of тӯндар (tūndar), ‘treeless plain’]

On a hotter topic, the familiar words lava, crater, and volcano all come from the neighborhood of Mt. Etna. Geyser is borrowed from Iceland, as is jökulhlaup, originally meaning an outburst of water caused by a volcano under a glacier, but used in geology for any sudden glacially-related flood.

Hawai`ian contributes words for two types of solidified lava: aa (ʻaʻā) for high-silica, viscous stuff that freezes into a rough, sharp texture, and pāhoehoe for low-silica lava which presents a relatively smooth surface after freezing. (A good mnemonic for remembering which is which is that aa is what you’re likely to wind up saying if you decide to go walking on that type.) Indonesian gives us lahar for a hot debris flow associated with a volcanic eruption.

On the other hand, another volcanic feature is called a maar, from a German dialect word for “sea”. Maars are formed when molten rock underground comes into contact with groundwater and causes a steam explosion. Since the bottom of the resulting crater then reaches groundwater level, the water seeps into the lower part of it to form a pond or lake. While there is no active volcanism in the area now, there are a bunch in the Eifel region of Germany, where the word comes from.

Japanese famously is the source for tsunami (津波), for which many English speakers have long used the term tidal wave (because it looks like a sudden high tide, rather than a normal ocean wave). Following the Boxing Day earthquake of 2004, tsunami seems to have finally shifted into common usage – but seeing as it means “harbor wave”, it’s hard to argue that everyone is really using a more correct word now, beyond the fact that it’s the official geological term.

This entry was posted in Etymology, Language, Words and phrases.

12 Responses to Geologically speaking

  1. Christopher Miller says:

    I suppose that strictly speaking, a more “accurate” word than tsunami would be seismokyme (or latinised, seismocyme), the kyme/cyme being from a Greek word for wave. But then, most of us would not for a moment think of using the magma we are familiar with to soothe skin problems…

    I wonder about Hawaiian ‘a’a: I imagine its counterparts in other Polynesian languages would likely be kaka based on the typical phonetic changes in Hawaiian. I also assume the word must originally be a word from some other area and with some other meaning, repurposed metaphorically or metonymically to refer to the volcanic phenomenon. This seems likely considering that the Polynesian islands further southeast from which the original Hawaiians likely arrived aren’t volcanically active the way the Hawaiian islands are.

  2. Dennis King says:

    ‘A‘â is also a verb meaning “burn, blaze, glow”:

    ‘A‘â ka pele. = Lava glows.

  3. TJ says:

    I minored in Geology too :)
    Frankly, been saving in my memory for the semester and then deleting the info for new ones to come!
    But there were still terms that were not latin or english that passed my eyes, like the “augen” formation, from German for “eyes”.

    For Tsunami, we use the same word in Arabic anyway, but if we would like a more scientific and logical name other than that then I don’t know upon what measure shall we base the naming? If we say “high tide” that doesn’t sound quite effective. Maybe Giga-wave? or Gigakuma (gigant + kuma = giant + wave)?

    Still, I like “Tsunami”.

  4. Stuart Johnson says:

    Many of the geological periods are named after geographical areas where the rocks of those ages were first studied. So we have:

    Cambrian – named after Cambria, the Latin name for Wales
    Ordovician – named after the Ordocives, a pre-Roman geo-political area in modern-day Wales
    Silurian – named after the Silures, another pre-Roman geo-political area Wales
    Devonian – named after the English county Devon.
    Jurassic – named after the Jura mountains in France.

    By the way, doesn’t the word “volcano” come from the island in the Mediterranean called Vulcano rather than from Mt Etna? That island itself gets its name from the Roman god of fire, Vulcan.

    Had never come across the word jökulhlaup before, despite having studied geology myself. Learnt something new today then! ;-)

  5. D.Jay says:

    What about nunatak, which is from Inuktitut? or esker, whose etymology I don’t know?

  6. Christopher Miller says:

    Hmm, there are several good candidates for renaming tsunami. Seismokyme/seismocyme, as I suggested, is one. Kyme/cyme (or cima etc.) would be the regular English/general European reflexes of Greek κύμα since Greek υ is normally (apart from rare cases like ‘kudos’) replaced by ‹y› or ‹i› in writing systems that don’t regularly use that letter, and the final -a often shows up as -e in English, a correspondence inherited from French. Other possibilities that come to mind: megalocyme, teratocyme (huge wave, monster wave). I like seismocyme because it directly connects the wave to seismic activity but is different from ‘seismic wave’ which refers to the more abstract “waves” that propagate through the solid crust of the earth. Still, tsunami has such a history to it that it’s not likely to be dislodged from its throne any time soon.

    As for esker, I see this from Wikipedia:

    “The name Esker is derived from the Irish word eiscir (Old Irish: escir), which means: “a ridge or elevation, especially one separating two plains or depressed surfaces” (Dictionary of the Irish Language). The term was used particularly to describe long sinuous ridges, which are now known to be deposits of fluvio-glacial material. The best-known example of such an eiscir is the Eiscir Riada, which runs nearly the whole width of Ireland from Dublin to Galway, a distance of about 100 miles, and is still closely followed by the main road from Dublin to Galway.”

  7. Yenlit says:

    “Esker” is from Irish ‘eiscir’ – a ridge of gravel.

  8. Petréa Mitchell says:

    I hadn’t run into nunatuk before myself, so I’ve just learned something too. Probably, like jokulhlaup, it’s one of those less-used words that you tend to learn only if they’re relevant to your local geology. (For instance, here near the end of the Columbia Gorge, catastrophic glacier-related flooding is highly relevant, but actual glaciation is something that only happens to other people.)

  9. Macsen says:

    esker = eiscir = probably same as ‘esgair’ in Welsh.

  10. Yenlit says:

    I would have thought so.

  11. Tommy says:

    Great post. I am a big fan of topic-based investigations in language learning, as I try to advocate on my blog, too.

    I am curious about how interdisciplinary the typical university/academic study of Geology goes. Does you get into atsmopheric and other weather phenomena like El Nino?

  12. Rafi Markus says:

    Jökulhlaup is a combination of jökull, glacier in Icelandic (a sidetrack of this discussion: here, at the end of a syllable, the pronunciation of ll is /dl/) and hlaupa, to run. hlaupa, of course, is related to lopen, to walk, in Dutch, laufen, to run, in German and loafer in English (you surely noted the consonant shift in German from p to f, but this is a sidetrack, too).