A way with words

This short but amusing extract entitled ‘Geobabble’ was taken from the newsletter of the Black Country Geological Society number 160, August 2003.

Dolomite and Calcite 006988

A favourite word of mine however, is PENECONTEMPORANEOUSLY. Perhaps not a Technical term, but an adverb that I have only see used in a geological context. Indeed, I have only seen it used in one situation and that is to describe the formation of Dolomite on the sea floor. In a calcite mud the CaCO3 minerals are replaced by dolomite soon after deposition, i.e. penecontemporaneously. It means; ‘pene’ – almost, and ‘contemporaneously’ – at the same time as, so it describes very early diagenesis. * But this is not the only merit with this word. It is very useful in long word contest having 21 letters. It can also come in handy if you have young children; “If I beat you at hangman, you go to bed!” *Maurice Tucker: Sedimentary Petrology (Second edition): p148.

It is not just words, what about technical terms. Every subject or organisation seems to have to change the terminology for no particular reason, except perhaps to confuse. Education is particularly bad at this: your are in year 9 instead of the third year, and there is now an examination ‘specification’ instead of a syllabus. But geology cannot be excused entirely from this. Having learnt a host of fossil genera in the sixties, I now find that they have mostly been revised, I am sure, for perfectly good reasons. But I miss some of the old names; the big rugose coral in the Wenlock will always be Omphyma subturbinata to me, a tough sounding name that has been replaced by the weak Ketophyllum subturbinatum. Likewise the brachiopod Conchidium knighti is now Kirkidium knighti. However, the one we really should be campaigning about -letters to your MP etc- is another brachiopod Gypidula galeta. Its old name was Pentamerus dudleyensis!!

The most ridiculous use of a geological term I came across was related to me by a geologist specialising in geomorphology. He said that he was struggling through a paper by an American Earth Scientist that was written in the most convoluted language possible, using the maxim; ‘never use one word when six will do the job’. He started to come across the expression; ‘the free air interface’, and after a while he realised that the writer was referring to the ground! Keep your feet on the free air interface!!

Fossil in Micrite 003587

Geology has always been striving to standardise its terminology so that we are all using the same language, and this has been accepted as being generally worthwhile and sensible. We have seen ‘felspar’ become ‘feldspar’, ‘barytes’ replaced by ‘barite’, and there are many others. Sometimes a revision can be problematical. Sedimentary rocks were described using the standard terminology, mudstone, sandstone, conglomerate etc, with adjectives used in a random way. So you could have a ‘quartz sandstone’, ‘feldspathic sandstone’ and ‘calcite mudstone’. As the study of sedimentary rocks moved away from the purely descriptive a new set of terms emerged, so a calcite mudstone would be a ‘micrite’ or a ‘calcilutite’. You could describe the grain sizes using, lutite, arenite and rudite, for mudstone, sandstone and conglomerate respectively, and instead of the adjective use a prefix. Siliceous rocks could have ‘sili’ on the front, and the limestones could have ‘calci’ as a prefix. So we now have standard terms such as calciclastic, calcilutite, calcarenite and calcirudite. The siliceous rocks, however, proved to be more of a problem, siliclastic is widely used, but sililutite and siliarenite are not so accessible, and as for silirudite, there was no future.

Written by Bill Groves
BCGS Member

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