Weird Words

Weird words: Petrichor, stone’s blood.

Stepping outside after this weekend’s much-needed downpours, I was met with a familiar fragrance. The smell of the earth after rain, sometimes called “Petrichor”.

This is a fairly modern word, cobbled together by a couple of scientists in 1965.
It’s derived from two Greek word roots. Petra (πετρα) meaning “rock” and ichor (ιχωρ) meaning “blood”. But ichor is usually a special sort of blood – the juice that flows in the veins of a god or giant, perhaps a monster, not a mere mortal.

Petrichor’s scent is strongest after rain beats down on hot, dry soil. When rain pummels the earth, it stirs up waste from tiny soil bacteria called Actinomycetes… tossing tiny particles of something chemists have named “geosmin” into the air.

Interestingly enough, this same compound that brings us that lovely post-rainstorm aroma is also responsible for strong earthy flavors.

It’s why catfish and other bottom-feeders can taste a bit muddy at times (especially when caught in hot weather). It’s also why fungi and vegetables can taste a bit earthy, even after being thoroughly washed. Personally, I’m fond of strong-flavored catfish and earthy beets and mushrooms, but to each their own.

If you’re not fond of those earthy flavors, consider adding an acid during cooking (such as vinegar). This will cause geosmin to break down and give you less-fishy tasting fish or vegetables that taste less of dirt.

On a more entomological note, mosquitoes are attracted to geosmin’s smell in preparation for laying their eggs. A number of entomologists and chemists are currently experimenting on traps using geosmin extracted from beetroot skins.

I look forward to seeing how geosmin trap technology develops – but I suspect it’d be quite possible to come up with a homemade trap based on the same principles that’d work well. After all, if we can collect and destroy many mosquito eggs, we should see some dint in next years’ mosquito populations.

There are few scents I’d rather breathe in.

Weird Words

Weird Words: Emoluments

Perhaps we should call this “ask the etymologist”…

Emolument comes to us by way of Latin – specifically, ēmŏlŭmentum literally means “something that is produced from work”. Different forms of the Latin word “emolument” meant striving for success and achieving success, but it also referred to profits, gains, or benefits. “Emolument” can be dissected into a couple of word roots to help us remember the meaning of “emolument”.

“Ex-“ or “E-“ means “out/out of” in both Greek and Latin. Think of organ removal surgeries – an appendectomy is when an appendix is taken out, likewise a hysterectomy is when one’s uterus is removed. Alternatively, some Christians believe in creation “ex nihilo”, God’s creation of the universe “out of nothing”.

“Melere” means “to grind” in Latin. This word root has a fine and storied history, older by far than Latin, going all the way back to Proto-Indo-European. Think of all the words we have that come from this today! Our grinding teeth are called “molars”, certain hammer-related crushing tools are called “mauls”, a “miller” crushes things in a “mill” and the resultant “meal” is what has been crushed.

So, if we mash those two word roots together ex-melere → e-melere emolument would roughly translate as “the outcome of grinding” (money, if you’re the miller).

This word appears prominently in the Foreign Emoluments Clause in the U.S. Constitution. This clause was put in place to limit the amount of governmental corruption, particularly by outside money… A worthy goal, if hard to achieve.

The idea is that we don’t want our officials, either elected or appointed, using their positions to achieve personal gain. Most organizations, whether community, state, or national-level have safeguards to prevent emoluments. One doesn’t want an employee giving preferential treatment to certain people because of secret bargains. It’s also a common word to see in Nepotism laws.