My Favorite Geology Word(s)

For Accretionary Wedge #35 Evelyn Mervine asks “What’s your favorite geology word?” This is a tricky one, because there are so many great geology words – I’m seriously tempted to start flipping through the Glossary of Geology to avoid missing some great word that I’ve forgotten or never used, but I literally fear being sucked into an hours or days long sinkhole that would expand my vocabulary, but ultimately lead to frustration and gnashing of teeth at the plethora of possibilities.

Of course, one of the challenges in choosing a word for this Accretionary Wedge is trying to find one that is both interesting and not likely to be chosen by someone else. The most straightforward way to fulfill these requirements is to pick a word close to your own specialty, perhaps even one that figures into the title of your cleverly named geoblog. Since I named my blog in a decidedly (geologically) unclever way I’ve got no help there. My web domain “outcrop.org” was chosen with a definite nod to the place I’d rather be, but is it really my favorite word? I don’t think so. Part of my Ph.D. research involved geochronology, though its now over a decade since I’ve worked on that. Zircon? Xenotime? I like them, but they’re not my favorite words. One of the other aspects of my Ph.D. research was tectonics. During a Penrose Conference in the southern Sierras, while discussing the possibility of tectonic erosion (specifically subduction erosion) removing the larger mass of a geologic body, but leaving behind just the “head”, a colleague coined the wonderful term “decorpitation” (think decapitation, but from the head’s perspective) to describe this event. Unfortunately, I don’t think decorpitation has made it into the literature so I’m a little hesitant to make it my choice. Besides, these days I think of myself as a geology generalist, so choosing a word on the basis of a geologic specialty has less appeal to me.

There is also the strategy of choosing a word for its humor value as a word. The classic geologic word in this category is cactolith, defined by the venerable Charles Hunt as “a quasihorizontal chonolith composed of anastomosing ductoliths whose distal ends curl like a harpolith, thin like a sphenolith, or bulge discordantly like an akmolith or ethmolith.” Yes, it’s a real word, describing a real geologic feature, published in a real scientific report, but let’s face it, its the definition more than the word itself that’s the source of the humor. (Oh, to have been drunk around the campfire with Hunt and field crew in the Henry Mountains when they came up with that one!) Another word that I gave strong consideration to comes from my undergrad advisor, Art Goldstein’s Ph.D. field area. He worked on the Lake Char Fault in eastern Massachusetts. Lake Char is an abbreviation, however. The full name for the lake is Lake Chargoggagoggmanchauggagoggchaubunagungamaugg (spellings, as you might imagine, vary somewhat), and therefore that is the more complete name for the fault, too. (As a bonus of being Art’s advisee, I had the honor of learning to pronounce this monster – ask me sometime when you see me at a meeting.) While it’s definitely a winning word and a favorite, it’s really Art’s word, not mine.

That last example got me thinking along a slightly different line. What about choosing a favorite geologic word that described not a geologic process or general type of geologic material or landform, but rather a specific example? For example, the word Grímsvötn has a certain appeal to me both as a specific volcano and for the sound of the word itself – or more accurately, what I think the word itself sounds like. The fact is I can’t be sure how to pronounce any Icelandic word – I’d love to learn, but it’s just not in my native DNA. But that brings me to another volcano that I’ve always loved the name of: Tavurvur. I love the fact that it’s a very active volcano, part of an active caldera complex, a previous WoGE locality (where I foreshadowed my affinity for its name), but most of all I love just the sound of the word Tavurvur. And that’s good enough reason for me to name Tavurvur as my favorite geology word.

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