Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Collecting Words

I don’t know if the English language lends itself in particular to what I’d describe as word and phrase collecting, but the many mental and marginal notes I’ve made over the years suggest it is. Mojo is one that has been in the jumble of my word collection for several decades, but I’d never really focused on its meaning. That changed last week. And there are three others that have newly entered the collection: fossick, pater noster lakes, and fat quarters. Only the last, I guess, has no possible paleontological connection.


For an amateur at paleontology, the naming of a hitherto unknown genus and species from a fossil seems like an opportunity to brush up against immortality. The decision about a name carries great weight, the naming of a child comes to mind. Clearly, an action not to be taken lightly. I had assumed that professional paleontologists approached this with the same gravitas, though, I suppose it’s possible for someone who has done this several times to become blasé about it all. Actually, I don’t just suppose, I now know.

Nicholas Longrich, a postdoctoral associate at Yale, seems to have made career of uncovering new dinosaur genera from misidentified and improperly restored dinosaur fossil remains. Until last week, he had three genera to his credit. This past week he published on his latest find, a plant-eating dinosaur at the American Museum of Natural History that had been misidentified as a Chasmosaurus and restored to look like one. As the New York Times described the process of naming his latest find:

[O]ver a round of drinks with fellow paleontologists, Mr. Longrich struck upon, almost out of thin air, a name that would end up bringing him more publicity than any of this other discoveries: Mojoceratops.
(Yeganeh June Torbati, From Museum Basement, a ‘New’ Dinosaur, New York Times, July 9, 2010, italics added)

Excuse me if I’m amused but not impressed. After the fact, Longrich argued that it’s an appropriate name since mojo means a magical power, charm, or amulet typically used by men to attract and acquire power over women. Mojoceratops had a prominent “heart-shaped” frill on its head among other features which Longrich suggested were used in sexual displays.

Yes, mojo is a great word with connotations of voodoo, spells, and primal religion. In this case, though, Longrich demeaned the naming process. “Got my mojo working” sang Muddy Waters, “but it just wont work on you.”


In my previous posting, I wrote about Joan Wiffen, an inspiring amateur paleontologist from New Zealand. Her autobiography, Valley of the Dragons, had a strong touch of the exotic, partly because the flora, fauna, and geography of the islands are so alien to me. Here’s a bit of the flavor:

I recall a flowering grove of kowhai, alive with tuis, that attracted our attention, and as we watched we were astounded by the rustling flight and approach of a large old kaka, screeching as it flew in. (p. 60-61)

Fossick is a word she used (in various forms) that has stuck with me, even though, despite appearances, it’s not primarily about fossil hunting at all. For instance, when describing her family’s gem collecting phase, Wiffen wrote that they paid “to fossick for agates in ploughed farm paddocks.” That use of the word as it relates to gems seems to fit most closely to the standard definition of the word in its area of origin – Australia and New Zealand. To fossick is to search for gold or gems in already worked or abandoned areas. There seems to be a sense of looking through the leavings and, among its other accepted meanings, it can be used simply to mean “to rummage.” Still, given that its etymology is the same as that of fossil with both words derived from the Latin fossilis (found by digging) and, ultimately, from fodere (to dig), I think it’s easily and appropriately applied to people like me who do hunt for fossils. From this intransitive verb there is a wonderful noun form – fossicker. Yes, I am a fossicker and proud of it.

(By the way, Wiffen’s use of the word paddock in the quote about fossicking for agates is one typical in Australia and New Zealand, where the word applies to a fenced or enclosed field. Elsewhere, a paddock is an area near a stable where animals are saddled and exercised, and, in particular, it’s where race horses are saddled. Also, I enjoyed her use of ploughed, the British spelling variant of plowed.)

Pater Noster Lakes

There are moments when I am struck by the creativity and imagination behind some scientific words and terms, as I was in my initial encounter with the geological term pater noster lakes. I knew that pater noster is Latin for “our father” and often refers to the Lord’s Prayer. But lakes?

Geologist Les Sirkin in his book Eastern Long Island Geology With Field Trips (1995) explained. First, he described the process through which depressions, known as kettles (another great word) form on glaciated ground. Ice blocks left behind by a retreating glacier can be covered by outwash (sediment) from the glacier. When these blocks melt, kettles are formed. On permeable surfaces, the kettles are dry, on impermeable surfaces we end up with wet kettles and often wetlands. Sometimes the kettles form in a line paralleling the edge of the receding glacier. As Sirkin put it describing a particular collection of wet kettles on Long Island,

Chains of ponds like the Scuttlehole group have been likened to rosary beads and are known as pater noster lakes. (p. 40)

Rosary beads lying on the land. A poetic image.

Fat Quarters

This past week I came across another intriguing phrase. My wife set out from our summer cottage in pursuit of fat quarters. What a lovely phrase – fat quarters.

The reality behind this phrase is fairly prosaic. A standard bolt of cloth is 44" wide, and a quarter yard of that is 9" (a fourth of 36") by 44" (the standard width). That’s an awkwardly long and skinny strip for quilters, like my wife, who work with squares. A fat quarter is the same amount of material but in a much more useful configuration – the quarter yard is doubled to 18" and the standard width is halved to 22".

But, to my ear a fat quarter brings to mind all of the excess, celebration, and religious underpinnings of Mardi Gras – a combination of Fat Tuesday and the French Quarter. I was even willing to go in pursuit of fat quarters until I learned what they were.

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