Blogging on EARTH: The lighter side of geo-jargon

A big haboob sweeps over Phoenix.



A hoodoo at Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in Utah.


Ciar, Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported

Hawaiian pahoehoe lava.


U.S. Geological Survey

Timothy Oleson at Machu Picchu in Peru.


courtesy of Dave Clark

Sometimes in this world, we just need a little levity.

I was recently inspired by the great haboob that swept through Phoenix in July. Haboob. What a great word! Unless you were familiar with the term, you’d never guess what it meant (hint: it involves a lot of wind and sand … see below). That got me thinking about good old-fashioned sophomoric geo-word humor. Isn’t the funny lingo one of the reasons we were all lured to earth science in the first place? (Or was that just me?)

Truth be told, I was actually first intrigued by chemistry quips. I remember the bumper stickers stuck to the walls of my high school classroom that elicited under-my-breath snickers: “It takes alkynes,” and “Heisenberg was here. Or was he?” (I suppose the latter is more in the realm of physics perhaps). Those were OK. But, as I later came to appreciate, earth science is blessed with an unmatched wealth of amusing terminology.

We’re all familiar with the classics: the T-shirts that read “Gneiss chert” or “Tuff guy,” the blush-inducing phrases like … ahem … slaty cleavage, and, naturally, the countless wisecracks and puns to be made with geology’s most fundamental word, “rock.” (Ever been to a “rock concert”?)

What about the countless other morsels of unintentional comedy, though? Here, in no particular order, are a few chuckle-worthy ones you might not have heard recently:*

Sounds like: a cinnamon-flavored chewing gum-candy bar amalgam.

But is actually: not something you want to chew on. Cinnabar is the mineral form of mercury sulfide (HgS), the principal ore of mercury. It often occurs as reddish-brown crystals in veins and alluvial deposits.


Sounds like: Elmer Fudd saying “drip.”

But is actually: a South Asian term for a depositional unit (e.g., an island) in a tidal channel caused by channel bifurcation or reversing tidal currents.


Sounds like: a colloquial term for one’s leg, from the shin all the way up to the rump.

But is actually: a colloquial term used in the U.S. Southwest for silicified wood.


Sounds like: goofy, fun.

But is actually: a poorly sorted sandstone that also contains abundant clay or silt.


Sounds like: something babies wear.

But is actually: an elliptical or teardrop-shaped volume of magma, rock or salt rising toward Earth’s surface due to its relative low density compared to the surrounding “country rock.”


Country rock
Sounds like: music by Lynyrd Skynyrd or Kid Rock.

But is actually: rock enclosing or transversed by a mineral deposit; or, nonigneous rock surrounding an igneous intrusion.


Sounds like: a Dr. Seuss character.

But is actually: a column or pinnacle of rock, often sandstone, created by differential weathering and erosion.


Sounds like: the first entry in the yellow pages.

But is actually: the first entry in many geologic glossaries; or, a descriptive term for a basaltic lava flow characterized by a jagged, spinose surface.


And you can’t mention “aa” without also mentioning …


Sounds like: a small snack food made of chocolate cake rolled together with sugary icing and coated in a thin chocolate shell.

But is actually: a descriptive term for a basaltic lava flow characterized by a smooth, ropy or billowy surface.


Sounds like: something you want to avoid being near as it falls from the sky.

But is actually: something you want to avoid being near as it falls from the sky; or, a volcanic pyroclast, greater than 64 millimeters in diameter, ejected at high velocity and shaped in flight.


Sounds like: a very impressive light bulb.

But is actually: a sedimentary limestone rock composed mainly of small (roughly 1 millimeter in diameter), rounded, inorganically precipitated nodules known as ooliths. See similar entries ooid, oocast, oolitoid, ooloid, oomold, oosparite and oovoid. (Good Scrabble® words!)


Vegetable Jelly or Fundamental Jelly
Sounds like: it’s gross.

But is actually: another word for ulmin, a product of plant degradation that occurs in coal as a gelatinous brown or black material.


And last but not least …

Sounds like: (use your imagination)

But is actually: a term of Arabic origin for a large dust storm common in arid regions.


This is, of course, an incomplete list. Feel free to help us out with more entries. If you have a favorite funny geo-, climate- or other general science-inspired word, share it with us on Facebook!


* Definitions adapted from the Glossary of Geology.


Timothy Oleson

Oleson is a biogeochemist-turned-science-writer currently interning at EARTH.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011 - 21:00