Geology Jargon Ripe for Zombie Re-Animation

One of the things I love about geology is the jargon. After all, what could possibly be more fun than laying down “clayey” or “vug” on a triple word score and being able to say that yes, it is too a word?

Wait, don’t answer that one. Instead, let me give you one of my favorite passages from Basin and Range:

Geologists communicated in English; and they could name things in a manner that sent shivers through the bones. They had roof pendants in their discordant batholiths, mosaic conglomerates in desert pavement. There was ultrabasic, deep-ocean, mottled green-and-black – or serpentine. There was the slip face of the barchan dune.

In 1841, a paleontologist had decided that the big creatures of the Mesozoic were “fearfully great lizards,” and had therefore named them dinosaurs. There were festooned crossbeds and limestone sinks, pillow lavas and petrified trees, incised meanders and defeated streams. There were dike swarms and slickensides, explosion pits, volcanic bombs. Pulsating glaciers. Hogbacks. Radiolarian ooze. There was almost enough resonance in some terms to stir the adolescent groin.

One can only imagine what would happen if McPhee ever considered the effect of Love waves on the extending adolescent crust.

Kim wants to know which parts of this beautiful language should be killed. I suppose I understand her point – we have accumulated a thick, almost oolitic blanket of jargon, words like “flysch” and “miogeosyncline” that accreted around the nuclei of now-discredited theories. Some terms are no longer useful descriptions of the world, and trying to apply them in a modern theoretical context only leads to confusion.

Clarity and utility aside, though, I don’t want to work in a field where McPhee’s lingering, poetic attentions are discarded for the clinical decisiveness of “titanite”. For every word we lay to rest, I think we should find something equally beautiful to lift out of obscurity. Conservation of jargon, if you will. Perhaps we can think of some more old place names to honor. Maybe we can even find a word ugly enough to replace “miogeosyncline”.

I’ll start with tiphon, the loser in a late 19th Century competition to describe what are now called sedimentary diapirs – or perhaps English spelling would prefer it as typhon. Typhon was the son of Gaia; according to legend (or at least to M. Paul Choffat) his weaning was a traumatic experience, as he tore off a piece of his mother’s side while ripping himself away from her breast. He is also occasionally reputed to have thrown Mt. Etna at the sky.

While I know better than to think the term “mud volcano” is anything other than firmly entrenched, I am so, so sick of typing out “mud volcano” and “magmatic volcano”. I’d much rather be talking about tiphons.

I also want to bring gnamma, an indigenous Australian term from the Western Desert, into broader usage. I did a rock blog on gnammas a while back; as far as I know, it’s a generic term for any pit in a rock that holds water, but many (most?) gnammas are created by a feedback loop in the erosion process. What that starts as a small dimple will eventually become a deep hole, because the water that collects in the dimple accelerates the erosion of the underlying rock during freeze-thaw cycles.

… and that’s all I can think of for now. Who’s got something to add?


  1. Chris Rowan wrote:

    Hmmm. Tiphon is quite a cool word. I’ll try to remember this next time I write about Lusi…

  2. chezjake wrote:

    Speaking from the point of view of an interested and curious non-geologist, both tiphon and gnamma have the advantages of brevity and distinctiveness. However, neither has the main advantage of most of McPhee’s examples — that of being fairly self-explanatory.

  3. Silver Fox wrote:

    In the southwest US, the gnammas that form on the slickrock are called tinajas. The ones I’ve seen are high up on cliffy massifs, and haven’t been formed by running water.

  4. Kim wrote:

    Hee! You beat me to the sequel: which terms should we defend at all costs, rock hammers ready to fight off anyone who tries to take them from us?

    I would say there are some really boring (and hard-to-remember) terms that could use to be replaced by something evocative. Pretty much anything that’s classified by numbers or letters, for instance. Folds: Class 1A, 1B, 1C, 2, and 3. Mode 1, 2, and 3 fractures. (Or are those supposed to be Roman numerals? I have to learn them once a year for lecturing, and then promptly forget them. I prefer calling them “joints” and “shear fractures.”) Type A and type B subduction. S-, L-, and S-L tectonites. Ick.

    On the other hand, I’m glad that metamorphic petrology has a fairly simple set of basic names. (And also that I can say “gneiss rock” a lot.)

  5. Maria wrote:

    Oooh, “tinaja” is almost as cool as “gnamma”. Maybe we can make up some meaningless distinction or sub-categorization in order to give both words a purpose?

    Chezjake, good point. I’ve also seen gnammas described as “weather pits”, which is slightly more evocative but not as cool-sounding.

    Kim, maybe we could start with a trilogy, and then add endless prequels and sequels to milk the cash cow?

  6. Silver Fox wrote:

    I love the sequel – prequel -trequel idea (oops, I just used a non-word). You’re right, first there should be a triology.

  7. Laelaps wrote:

    This semester I’ve been taking a human osteology course that is chock full of jargon and osteometric points. My favorite so far, though, is that when the sutures of the bone in the skull fuse and then continue to ossify so that the suture becomes harder to see, the sutures are “completely obliterated.”

  8. christie wrote:

    I love this conversation. Want to know something funny? There’s no word in South Africa for “arroyo”. They call everything a “river” and since there’s rarely surface water anywhere, there’s no ambiguity. I’m introducing “arroyo”. I’m trying to introduce tacos, too, but that may take a while longer to catch on.

  9. Maria wrote:

    Coming from near the Mississippi it took me a long time to get used to the fact that people in California use “river” to mean anything with perennial flow, even when it’s small enough that I would call it a “creek”…

  10. Kim wrote:

    I learned the hard way that “perennial stream” on a map doesn’t mean the same thing in California as in Maine. (Got pretty dehydrated on that backpacking trip, too.)

    Did you know there’s an ad for “Volcanic Mud Soap” on your sidebar right now?

  11. Maria wrote:

    Soap’s nothing! Wait’ll you see tomorrow’s post.

  12. Silver Fox wrote:

    That’s pretty funny. I might have to buy some! It’s “supercharged with detoxifying volcanic mud.” Do you suppose the mud is from a mud volcano? Err, tiphon (not sure I can get used to that one).

  13. octopod wrote:

    Maybe let “gnamma” mean the water-eroded pits, and “tinaja” the wind-eroded ones?

    And yeah, the vocabulary is a big perk of studying geology. “Tiphon” is pretty cool, but I’ll have to work pretty hard to get to use that. Personally, I’ve always been a fan of “turtleback” (a particular mountain shape — you see it a lot on the eastern side of Death Valley, but I’ve never seen it anywhere else). “Esker” and “karst” both sound like good names. And any kind of “ooze” (be it radiolarian, diatomaceous, or just plain microbial) is a big winner in my book.

    But there are still way too many words for different kinds of feldspar. It’s really not that complicated, man. Pyroxenes, OK, they’re just that bad, but feldspars?

  14. Silver Fox wrote:

    Tinajas, being water-filled, are I think formed by water and freeze-thaw action, though I can’t find any good references.

    My old professor David B. Slemmons might disagree about plagioclase types being a problem, although some varieties are more common than others.

  15. ScienceWoman wrote:

    At the moment, I’d just like to see geology rid of either anabranching or anastomosing rivers. If I can’t keep them sorted, how can I possibly expect my students to do so. What happened to good old: meandering, braided, or straight?

  16. Cherish wrote:

    Ah! I like anastomosing. The first time I heard it, I decomposed it into “A Nasty Mosing”…and I wondered if it was overgrown with algae.

    I also like saying “crepuscular rays” when looking at sunsets. It impresses the heck out of people. :-D

  17. Maria wrote:

    Ew, I hate “crepuscular”! I mean, maybe it would work for some kind of biological adaptation among cave newts, but I just can’t bear the thought of such an ugly word applying to sunsets. It just gives me the willies.

    Maybe we could swap “crepuscular” for “nictitating”. Then you’d have “crepuscular membranes” and “nictitating rays”. I think that would be much better.

  18. BlindSquirrel wrote:

    Are the pits in limestone in the South also called gnamma if they are biogenic and not caused by freeze thaw?

    You can keep anabranching. Us mycologists have a lock on anastomoses.

  19. agm wrote:

    These water-holding structures, are they like huecos?

  20. Coragyps wrote:

    “The first time I heard it, I decomposed it into “A Nasty Mosing”…and I wondered if it was overgrown with algae.”

    Hmm. Slicknasty Creek is only forty miles from here – but I don’t think it anastomozes even a little bit.

  21. Elaine wrote:

    For jargon with humour, how about the definition of a cactolith: “a quasi-horizontal chonolith, composed of semi-anastomosing ductoliths, whose distal ends curl like a harpolith, thin like a sphenolith, or bulge discordantly like an akmolith or ethmolith.” Thank you, ‘Structural Geology of Rocks and Regions’ by Davis. Marvellous book.

  22. Mike Fox wrote:

    Sounds like you need to start a geologist’s version of Urban Dictionary.

  23. TerraByte wrote:

    I always wanted to write an article about leaking underground storage tanks in loess, just so I could entitle it “LUST in the Dust.” Alas, I retired too soon.

  24. NJ wrote:

    I always wanted to write an article about leaking underground storage tanks in loess…

    I guess your retirement was our loess.

    Sorry. I’m a bad person ;)

  25. Mike Clinch wrote:

    Elaine said: “For jargon with humour, how about the definition of a cactolith: “a quasi-horizontal chonolith, composed of semi-anastomosing ductoliths, whose distal ends curl like a harpolith, thin like a sphenolith, or bulge discordantly like an akmolith or ethmolith.” “, and John McPhee also quotes that description later in the same “jargon” chapter.

    McPhee (and Davis) never got the joke. Charlie Hunt tried to protest the crreping amount of new jargon by proposing this term, and found, to his horor, that it didn’t get vetoed by the USGS reviewers. The term carries its own contradictions, sinse chonolith is defined as a roughly lacolithic body which is so poorly exposed that it is impossible to classify it further, let alone with five other “-lith” terms.

  26. William Nicholls wrote:

    Long live geopoetry.

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