Word of the day – Petrichor

Petrichor, noun, /ˈpɛtrɨkər/ – the scent of rain on dry earth.

It comes from the Greek πέτρος (petros – stone) and ἰχώρ (ichor – the fluid that flows in the veins of the Greek gods), and was coined in 1964 by two Australian researchers, I.J. Bear and R.G. Thomas. The smell isn’t of the rain itself but comes from the oils released by vegetation when rain falls [source].

I found this word while searching for dripple, which I hear on the radio last night and which was described as being a type of light rain that isn’t quite drizzle. The only references to dripple I could find gave it’s meaning as “weak or rare” and there was no mention of rain.

I also found the Beaufort Rain Scale, a spoof version of the Beaufort Scale which ranges from:

Force 0: Complete Dryness.
Absence of rain from the air. The gap between two periods of wet.
Associated Phrase: “it looks like it might rain.”


Force 4: Visible Light Shower.
Hair starts to congeal around ears. First rainwear appears. People start to remember washing left out. Ignored by all sportsmen except Wimbledon players, who dash for cover. A newspaper being read outside starts to tear slightly.
Associated Phrases: “it’s starting to come down now,” “it won’t last,” and “it’s settled in for the day now.”


Force 10: Hurricane.
Not defined inland – the symptoms are too violent and extreme (cars floating, newspaper readers lost at sea, people drowned by inhaling rain, etc.). So, if hurricane conditions do appear to pertain, look for some other explanation.
Associated Phrases: “oh my god, the water tank has burst – it’s coming through the kitchen ceiling,” and “i think the man upstairs has fallen asleep in his bath.”

This entry was posted in English, Greek, Language, Words and phrases.

22 Responses to Word of the day – Petrichor

  1. John says:

    What a lovely word! I’ll be trying to slip it in a sentence, when it next rains.

  2. Yenlit says:

    I’ve heard of drizzle and even mizzle (from Dutch dialect miezelen) but not ‘dripple’? What is it a fusion of the words ‘drip’ and ‘dribble’?

  3. Alex Semakin says:

    The scale is obviously designed for the British, judging by the ‘optimistic’ phrase associated with complete dryness. 🙂 I’m wondering about ‘cats and dogs’. When I was studying English at school and university we were taught that it was the slang for a heavy downpour. Later I read that it was obsolete and hardly ever used these days at all. On the Beaufort scale it, unexpectedly, corresponds to drizzle, which is very light rain. I realize it must be a joke. Anyway, I wonder whether ‘it’s raining cats and dogs’ is really used these days by native speakers in any parts of the UK or elsewhere. Maybe only as a joke/a dated cliche?

  4. Alex Semakin says:

    Also wanted to add that I love the scent of rain on dry earth and I’m glad there’s a word for it, even if it’s a rare one! There doesn’t seem to be one in Russian.

  5. Yenlit says:

    I’d say the term ‘raining cats n’ dogs’ is a quaint expression for a heavy shower but still current in UK English but you’d more likely hear terms like ‘bucketing it down’ or ‘pissing down’ etc.
    The Welsh equivalent of cats and dogs is ‘old women and sticks’:
    glawio (or ‘bwrw’) hen wragedd a ffyn.
    Don’t ask me why?

  6. Christopher Miller says:

    “Raining cats and dogs” is a well-known expression, probably known by the vast majority of native English-speaker, even if it’s not used in the majority of cases. It’s a bit of a humorous image, and I can recall having heard it on occasion from someone when it is really raining hard, but it’s really restricted to extremely heavy rain, hence why it is rarely used in practice. Still, I wouldn’t call it outdated at all, just restricted in use by dint of circumstances and its humorous exaggeration.

    The equivalent in French is “il pluit des cordes” (it’s raining ropes), by the way.

  7. Drabkikker says:

    And isn’t there the extended version ‘it’s raining cats and dogs and pitchforks’?

  8. Peter Didsbury says:

    I recently figured ‘petrichor’ and various rain-related idioms in a recorded Proms Interval talk I did for BBC3. I don’t think it’s still available on Listen Again, but there might be Google-able summaries still available.

  9. Alex Semakin says:

    Thanks to everyone for the enlightening details!

    I love ‘old women and sticks’! I guess the idea is that the rain is beating down so hard that it’s like a bunch of angry old women are beating you with their sticks. 🙂

  10. LandTortoise says:

    Re Christopher Miller above- at the risk of being labelled a pedant- the French is actually “il PLEUT des cordes”.

  11. Yenlit says:

    I am familiar with the word ‘petrichor’ although I’ve never heard or used it in casual conversation. I’ve only read about it on blog sites (languagehat etc.) when it’s been a topic.
    ‘It’s raining cats and dogs’ has a section on Omniglot’s idiom translation page although I’ve never heard of some of the English idioms ie. ‘frog strangler’? Maybe they’re very localised dialect variations?
    PS. It’s raining here in the Northwest of England right now!

  12. Alex Semakin says:

    It’s snowing here in Perm, Russia right now!

  13. Yenlit says:

    @ Alex: It’s snowy in Prem – is it ‘brass monkeys’?! (More weather/animal related English slang!)

  14. Alex Semakin says:

    @Yenlit: Thanks for the new idiom, just looked ‘brass monkeys’ up in my dictionary – seems to be strictly British slang, I wonder if Americans would understand it at all. Yes, it is brass monkeys for this time of the year!

  15. Simon says:

    Yenlit – the frog-related rain idioms are apparently used in Australia.

  16. Yenlit says:

    Oh, that’s why I’ve probably never heard it if it’s an Aussie expression, then. I was obviously thinking too UK-centrically seeing ‘English’ and automatically assuming it was British English – ta Simon for clearing that up.

  17. Drabkikker says:

    Turns out even weather stations know their idioms.

  18. Yenlit says:

    @ Drabkikker – Nice one! It says ‘weather center’ on the front instead of standard British spelling (centre) so is the cats and dogs idiom known outside of UK English usage, then?

  19. Ooh, I like this word! And I absolutely love that smell. Can it apply to the smell before rain, too? I don’t really know how to describe it, but it’s that atmospheric smell that pervades the air right before rain starts falling. Or perhaps that’s just petrichor wafting over from where it’s already begun to rain?

  20. Anonyme says:

    I have one (maybe stupid) question to ask to english native speakers : do you say “it’s raining cats and dogs” in Australia ? in Canada ? in the US ?
    Thanks ! 🙂

  21. Simon says:

    Expressions that I believe is used in Australia for heavy rain are: “It’s a frog strangler” and
    “It’s a frog strangling gully washer”. Not sure about Canada and the US.

  22. Anonyme says:

    Thank you, Simon. 😉
    In french we say : “Il pleut des cordes” which means “It’s raining strings”. Once I heard a very old man add : “Ouais, même qu’on pourrait jouer du violon dessus !” which means “Yeah, you could even play violon on it !”. I love this idea of playing violin on rain… Poetic expression, isn’t it ?
    Have a nice week end ! 🙂

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