The joys of geologisms

One of the attractive features of geology for me — and I know I’m not alone in this — is the sprawling vocabulary of technical terms in which the history and the personality of the discipline are preserved in rather the way that sedimentary structures preserve formational events. Last weekend, for example, I was on a chunk of karst pavement in Cumbria (karst: from the type locality in Slovenia) admiring the wonderful patterns of clints and grikes — both words from northern English and Scottish dialects; the former connected with Danish and Swedish words and confusingly described by the OED as also meaning “a crack or slit in rock, a grike”.

Hugh MacDiarmid, famously, used geological and gemological vocabulary to create a kind of phantasmagoria in the opening section of On a Raised Beach, displaying all his characteristic self-restraint in the process. The passage has a certain hallucinatory power, and it communicates the poet’s zest in the knobbliness and variety of the language, but it’s never seemed to me to respect the way that these words carry meaning and context: it’s like an eighteenth-century curiosity cabinet with everything jumbled up and nothing labelled properly. It’s admittedly a conscious piece of alienation, intended to contrast with the bare, meditative tone of the succeeding passage, but it still feels like a waste of resources to me.

Even more so than physicists, with their quarks and flavours and the likes, geologists seem to feel entitled to extend the vocabulary — not always with helpful consequences to the discipline, as descriptive and interpretive terms get hopelessly muddled. Just in the corner of the literature that deals with mass-flow deposits, I count turbidites, hyperpycnites, hemiturbidites and debrites, each defined in several different ways and each overlapping the others like horizons in a particularly messy delta fan. Still, at least it gives people plenty of terminological iniquities to rant about in the bar at conferences.

What’s set me off on this, in any case, is the discovery of a cracking new geological pun, which I hope catches on. Searching for a good term to describe the tectonic setting of the 2011 Mineral, VA earthquake — a large-scale event on a passive continental margin — Professor Seth Stein and his team coined the splendid phrase “passive–aggressive margin”, which has now appeared in their Geophys. Res. Lett. article on the subject. All credit to them, and with any luck this phrase will join the lexicon and preserve well into the future the sense of fun that geologists can have with words.

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