Thursday, September 03, 2015

`To Form a Bowl-Shaped Cavity'

So long as we use them prudently and with wit, one can never have enough words, so I was pleased when a friend sent me a note with the subject line “your boys might get a kick out of this list of words.” I did too. Of the 102 exotics, I knew or could figure out about thirty of them. Among my favorites is petrichor: “the smell of the first rain of the season after a long dry spell.” That’s pertinent to Houston, where we’ve smelled it all too rarely. The Australian poet Les Murray uses it in his essay “The Import of Seasons” (written in 1985, collected in A Working Forest, 1997):

“In the mid-1960s, Drs. Joy Bear and Richard Thomas of the CSIRO [Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization] discovered that the characteristic smell of rain on dry earth, one of the truly poignant smells of Australia, was called by a yellow oil which they could distill from rocks and soil. They termed this oil petrichor, `essence of stone. . .’”

“Heavy rains release some of it from the earth’s surface to wash down into swamps and streams, where it triggers the reproductive activity of fish and other aquatic animals and thus starts the cycle of life after a drought. A fraction of this oil rising from the earth provides the smell we notice, an odour to which many animals are probably keyed.”

The OED confirms Murray’s explanation, citing an excerpt from an article Bear and Thomas published in the journal Nature in 1964: “The diverse nature of the host materials has led us to propose the name `petrichor’ for this apparently unique odour which can be regarded as an `ichor’ or `tenuous essence’ derived from rock or stone. This name, unlike the general term `argillaceous odour,’ avoids the unwarranted implication that the phenomenon is restricted to clays or argillaceous materials; it does not imply that petrichor is necessarily a fixed chemical entity but rather it denotes an integral odour.”

One criterion for the usefulness of an obscure word is the sense it gives of plugging a hole in the world. Even in less arid climates, people recognize that smell. I associate it with rain on old slate sidewalks. When I learned the word years ago I promptly removed it from the museum and put it into circulation.

One can never have enough terms of abuse for fools of various species, and the list obliges – hoddypeak, nihilarian, pronk, philosophunculist, phlyarologist, rastaquouere, slubberdegullion, ultracrepidarian, widdiful. Of that arsenal, pronk is the likeliest weapon, with its monosyllabic bluntness and generally comedic sound.  The OED labels it “Brit. slang (derogatory). Now rare,” and defines it as “a fool, an idiot; (also) an ineffectual or effeminate person.” Judged by its utility, pronk ought to go into heavy rotation.

A word like yepsen is different. The OED defines it as “the two hands placed together so as to form a bowl-shaped cavity; as much as can be held in this.” It sounds too much like a Danish surname to be used without irony, but knowing that a simple human act – cupping water, gold or grain -- inspired a word of its own, lends one a rare sense of solidarity with his fellows.

[Speaking of Les Murray, Dave Lull has passed along a link to a television commercial the poet made for Australian tourism. Murray recites lines from his poem “The Dream of Wearing Shorts Forever”: “Spirituality with pockets!”]

No comments: