Which Word Wednesday: Stalactites vs. Stalagmites

By September 28, 2011 language No Comments

During my undergraduate studies at Illinois State University, I once took a course on geology to fulfill a general education credit. The professor was extremely passionate about rocks and land formations, which was good. He also spoke like a hippie, often interjecting “dude” or “butt-load” amidst the geological terminology. That was years ago. . . . it’s strange what the mind holds onto, huh?

I was reminded of what didn’t stick from that course while making waffles at a hotel in Maryland last weekend. The waffle batter had oozed down the sides of the griddle, so when I dislodged my golden griddle cake, it had pointy fingers of baked batter protruding around the edges. I commented that it looked like stalactites or stalagmites—but I wasn’t sure which one was the proper term for upward pointing formations. Those definitions didn’t stick from my college days.

Know Your Calcium Cave Deposits

Good thing we have Which Word Wednesday to solve this language dilemma. Let’s look first to the Oxford American Dictionary for the definitions:

stalactite :: noun
A tapering structure hanging like an icicle from the roof of a cave, formed of calcium salts deposited by dripping water.

stalagmite :: noun
A mound or tapering column rising from the floor of a cave, formed of calcium salts deposited by dripping water and often uniting with a stalactite.

Although the definitions tell us the difference, the real issue is remembering our up deposits from our down deposits. We’ll turn to another source for some memory hooks.

Ron Evans tells us in The Artful Nuance: A Refined Guide to Imperfectly Understood Words in the English Language that stalactite is Greek for “that which drips.” This reminds us that the deposits drip from the ceiling, and since ceiling starts with c it matches the c in stalactite.Likewise, the g in stalagmite reminds us that the deposits sometimes protrude from the ground up.1

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What’s my WWW verdict? Whoever named those deposits was sure wise to use c for the ceiling formation and g for the ground formation. Thanks, Dude.

What’s your verdict? Have you ever seen geological deposits in your breakfast waffles? Have you ever taken a geology course taught by a hippie? Do share in the comments.

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Check out previous Which Word Wednesday verdicts here.

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Sources
1. Ron Evans, The Artful Nuance: A Refined Guide to Imperfectly Understood Words in the English Language (New York, NY: Penguin Group, 2009), 188–189.
Image: http://www.threadless.com/product/1378/Stalagmite_vs_Stalactite

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