Permafrost Words.

Joshua Yaffa’s January 10 New Yorker piece on the melting permafrost in Yakutia (archived) is sobering, but I’m not here to talk about global warming, I’m here to discuss words, and there are several of interest, some of which I’d never seen before. First, on “permafrost” itself:

In a widely read monograph published in the nineteen-twenties, a Soviet scientist named Mikhail Sumgin called the country’s frozen earth vechnaya merzlota, literally “eternal frost,” a neo­logism that was later rendered into English as “permafrost.” Sumgin was something of a permafrost romantic, writing that “vechnaya merzlota astounds the human intellect and imagination.” He likened it to a “Russian Sphinx”—inexplicable, alluring, a riddle to be solved.

I knew the Russian term was вечная мерзлота, but didn’t realize it was the source of the English word — although the OED (updated December 2005) complicates the picture (“quot. 1943 at main sense” is S. W. Muller, Permafrost 3: “The expression ‘permanently frozen ground’ too long and cumbersome and for this reason a shorter term ‘permafrost’ is proposed as an alternative”):

Etymology: < perma- comb. form + frost n.
It has been suggested that the term is after Russian večnaja merzlota, literally ‘perpetual frozenness’; however, quot. 1943 at main sense explicitly rejects a similar phrasal model (‘permanently frozen ground’) in favour of compounding using existing elements in English. The phenomenon was first observed in Russia in the 17th cent.; in the 19th cent. the Russian academic K. M. von Baer proposed that in English the term ground ice (see ground-ice n.) should be used. Compare the following:
1838 Jrnl. Royal Geogr. Soc. 8 210 (title) On the ground ice or frozen soil of Siberia.
1838 Jrnl. Royal Geogr. Soc. 8 403 All these modifications may be comprehended under the term of ground ice, which has also the advantage of allowing of the expression ‘perpetual or permanent ground ice’… It seems to me very ascertain the thickness of perpetually frozen ground.

The term permanent frost, which could have served as a model for the formation of permafrost, was used in a title translated from Russian in the following:
1916 Geogr. Jrnl. 39 186 On permanent frost and the forms of perennial snow and ice in the Amur Province. By B. Polinof.

The original of the title in the 1916 cite is Boris Polynov (Борис Полынов), “О «вечной мерзлоте» и о формах льда и снега, переживающих лето, в Амурской области” (Землеведение. 1910. Кн. 3. С. 35-48); Polynov was arrested as an English spy in 1937 and taken to the Lubyanka, but by some miracle was released in 1939 and restored to his scientific positions. At any rate, if vechnaya merzlota was used in 1910 it could not have been invented by Sumgin in the nineteen-twenties.

Further on we get this passage:

The area on the Lena’s right bank, a valley of some twenty thousand square miles, is known for its large deposits of yedoma, a type of permafrost that is especially rich in ice. Whereas some permafrost is nearly all frozen soil, yedoma contains as much as eighty per cent ice, forming solid wedges, invisible from the surface, that can extend multiple stories underground. This is problematic for several reasons. Water is an efficient conductor of heat, soaking up atmospheric temperatures and warming the ­permafrost below. As yedoma thaws, it can create depressions in the land that fill with water, a process known as thermokarst.

My first thought was “Why isn’t ‘yedoma’ italicized?” But apparently it’s in English use — it has its own Wikipedia article (the stress is on the first syllable) — it’s just very specialized, and I hadn’t run across it. (The Russian word is also specialized, and isn’t in any of my dictionaries except Dahl, who has едома as a variant of едма and doesn’t seem to know quite what it means.) I also wasn’t familiar with thermokarst (OED: “topography in which the melting of permafrost has produced hollows, hummocks, and the like reminiscent of karst [After Russian termokárst (M. M. Ermolaev 1932, in Trudȳ Soveta po Izuch. proizv. Sil: Ser. yakutsk. 211).]), but it seems to be a type of terrain, not a “process” — what happened to the magazine’s fabled fact-checking?

A bit later we get:

Basharin and I drove past the pooling remains of thawing yedoma. Some areas were the size of small ponds, others were effectively lakes. We stopped at the edge of a large alas—a thermokarst lake that has dried up, becoming a kind of scooped-out crater. This alas had likely taken more than five thousand years to form.

The word “alas” was also unfamiliar and not in any of my English dictionaries (not the OED, not the big Websters), so I don’t know how to pronounce it; in Russian it’s stressed on the final syllable, so should I ever have occasion to say the English word I guess that’s how I’ll do it (with -LAHS rather than -LASS to distinguish it from the pained outcry).

Finally, there’s this:

Earlier in the summer, I visited Yamal, a peninsula that juts into the Kara Sea like a crooked finger. Yamal is home to the Nenets, an ethnic group native to the Russian north, and one of the largest remaining nomadic populations. Nenets live in chums—the local version of yurts—and drive herds of reindeer up and down the peninsula, in search of seasonal pastures. In the Nenets language, Yamal means “the edge of the world.”

On chum, Wikipedia says:

The word chum (Russian: чум) came from Komi: ćom [t͡ɕom] or Udmurt: ćum [t͡ɕum], both mean “tent, shelter”. In different languages it has different names: Nenets: ḿāʔ [mʲaːʔ], Nganasan: maʔ, Khanty: (ńuki) χot. Evenki: ǯū [d͡ʒuː].

And, somewhat surprisingly, Yamal does mean “the edge of the world”: Nenets ya ‘earth’ + mal ‘end.’

My favorite quote from the article:

This is the kind of experiment Sergey [Zimov] likes,” Göckede had told me. “For him, a bulldozer is a scientific instrument.”


  1. Remember, too, the noble pingo.

    (At the bottom, there are links to other terms of interest, including lithalsa, palsa, and talik.)

  2. Some nice photos there. They say “The term pingos, which in Inuvialuktun means conical hill, has now been accepted as a scientific term in English-language literature,” but per the Russian article it’s used internationally: “К таковым, во-первых, относятся ставшие международным термином северо-американские «пинго» (англ. pingo), широко развитые и впервые исследованные на Аляске и в Канадской Арктике.”

  3. Reading more on permafrost-related landforms, there’s also apparently protalus rampart which sounds like a mythical heraldic animal of some stripe.

  4. It sure does. (It’s /proʊˈteɪləs/, if anybody’s wondering.)

  5. Alas is Yakut word although it isn’t in Wiktionary?

    Выделяют четыре этапа формирования аласов — сперва быллар, дюедя, тымпы и затем, наконец, образуется сам алас.

    Lots more technical terms here.

  6. David Marjanović says

    Polynov was arrested as an English spy in 1937 and taken to the Lubyanka, but by some miracle was released in 1939 and restored to his scientific positions.



    Türkmenbaşy saw that and was like “challenge accepted”.

  7. I wondered whether Yaffa might be using “process” in a technical sense in that part about thermokarst, maybe related somehow to the anatomical sense “A projection from the main body of something; an outgrowth; a protuberance” (OED). Doesn’t look like it, but I did learn in the, ahem, process, that protruberance is an “irregular alteration of protuberance“. And there was me thinking that protuberance was the solecism in that pair.

  8. David Marjanović says

    “Process” is simply bad writing; I might have gone for “a process that leads to what is called thermokarst” (assuming the audience knew karst).

    A protuberance is a tuber.

  9. I might have gone for “a process that leads to what is called thermokarst”

    Yes, that would have been far preferable.

  10. J.W. Brewer says

    Is Protalus more likely to be a heraldic animal or a straw-man interlocutor who says dumb things in dialogues to set up Socrates’ zingers?

  11. “Tell us, Protalus, which would you say is better: to achieve glory in battle or to have a heavy club descend upon one’s head?”

  12. Isn’t it the same thing?

  13. This brings to mind one of my favorites SMBC comics.

  14. About 15 or 20 years ago, there was a flurry of articles about yedoma in journals like Science, and I became interested in the word in the etymology of the word. Unfortunately my notes on this word from those years are lost, but I recall at the time a Nenets etymology was given, from a putative Nenets yada ‘on foot’, evidently because whatever sort of terrain едома referred to (swamp? small flat-topped hill?), you couldn’t cover it on a sledge being drawn by reindeer. Looking just now, I found that a Nenets yada apparently does exist, the 3rd person possessed form of the nominative singular ya, “earth”. I wonder if that is the form in question. Едома is not in the Русский диалектный этимологический словарь mentioned on LH a while ago?

    I also came across this discussion in Strauss et al. (2021) “Circum-Arctic Map of the Yedoma Permafrost Domain”, Front. Earth Sci. relaying an inner Russian etymology, and also a Finnish etymology given here by Chudinov, Словарь иностранных слов, вошедших в состав русского языка:

    There is no clear agreement on the origin of the term “Yedoma” and its association with ice-rich fine-grained sediments. One version is that “Yedoma” was originally used by local people in Yakutia in a geomorphological sense to describe hills composed of Ice Complex deposits, which are “eaten” (Russian root yed from yest’ ‘to eat, to reduce, to erode’) by thermokarst that is forming typical landforms of alternating hills with lake depressions. However, there is no absolute confidence regarding this meaning. The term Yedoma was also used in the north-European part of Russia, where its originality from “samoyed” (Finnish language “erämaa”) is hypothesized with the meaning of remote forests or pasture and something “far away” or “wilderness” (Chudinov, 1910).

    Sakha алаас (alās) looks like it is root-related to Turkish alan “field, area”, regional Turkish ala “place remaining unwatered in an irrigated field, place where the plough skipped in the field and failed to plough”, Kazakh алаң “town square”, etc. (and Chuvash olъx “water-meadow”).

  15. Fascinating, thanks for digging that up!

  16. яда ‘on foot’ also does exist.

    Erämaa is specifically Finnish (not even in Karelian) and clearly not an option for etymologizing Russian dialect words… I wouldn’t entirely rule out some compound ending in Finnic or for that matter Northern Mansi maa, but just being a geographic term and ending in -ma is not a lot of reason to suspect this either.

  17. J Pystynen! Thank you for weighing in on this!

    Could you give us a reference to a dictionary or other source that has Nenets яда? My notes on едома from 15 years ago (when I looked into this word), with references to where I found Nenets яда, are no longer available to me.

    By the way, is there are further Uralic etymology to яда?

  18. I’d support ‘ground ice’ as an alternative to ‘permafrost’.

  19. Except “ground ice” sounds like ice that’s lying around on the ground; “permafrost” is clear and can’t be mistaken for anything else.

  20. True. But it’s got that nice & simple Anglo-Saxon sound to it.

    Besides, the ice that is lying around on the ground is in most cases called: ice.

  21. a reference to a dictionary or other source that has Nenets яда

    Tereshchenko’s Ненецко-русский словарь from 1965 (of which some digital versions are floating around the Internet by now), probably still the most thorough single lexical source on Tundra Nenets. Looks like a schwa-suffixed gerund of /jādə-/ ‘to go on foot’, from Proto-Samoyedic *jåtə-. Maybe further cognate to Finnic *johta- ‘to lead’ thru a few complications I think, but the area of numerous *j + back vowel motion verbs across Uralic could use a larger review in general.

  22. Trond Engen says

    I meant to say something about this from a Norwegian angle, but the sad fact is that I don’t know any Norwegian words for permafrost. That makes sense. Growing up I learned that there is no permafrost in mainland Norway. I think I wss about 20 when I first heard of peat mounds with a core of permafrost had been “discovered” in Finnmark and were being mapped and surveyed by scientists. Later I’ve learned that these are found also in the southern mountains, and that also a couple of types of deep permafrost can be found here.

    But no words until I stumbled upon palsmyrpals bog” in another context. This is the technical term for a swamp or peat bog with frozen mounds. The element pals is from Finnish palsa, which I also learn is the international term. This in turn is from North Sami balsa.

  23. January First-of-May says

    Besides, the ice that is lying around on the ground is in most cases called: ice.

    I’d expect ground ice to mean something like Russian гололёд (lit. “naked ice”) – slippery ice on the ground that makes it hard to walk or ride. IIRC the English terms for this are ice slick and/or black ice; apparently (according to an old LH thread) the Norwegian term is hålke.

  24. I’d expect ground ice to mean something like Russian гололёд (lit. “naked ice”) – slippery ice on the ground that makes it hard to walk or ride.

    Yes, that would have been my guess as well. I would never in a million years have connected it with permafrost.

  25. Trond Engen says

    Hålke, incidentally, is what we have outside on pavements and parking lots right now after a thaw in the wake of a winter storm. It’s good to have a chance to practice one’s moves.

  26. Be careful — a few years ago my sister-in-law slipped and broke her ankle in such conditions and was laid up for weeks (and her ankle still hurts when she moves it wrong).

  27. Trond Engen says

    Thanks. I am entering the dangerous age when I have to learn the hard way that my body isn’t as forgiving and my moves aren’t as agile as I think. But so far they’ve worked and the body has taken the occasional broken rib in stride, so no literal hard way to learn from yet.

  28. January First-of-May says

    to walk or ride

    This should probably have been “to walk or drive“; I was thinking of Russian ехать and apparently chose the wrong English word.

  29. Trond Engen says

    I thought you meant riding a bike.

  30. I think I automatically translated it to ехать in my mind and didn’t even notice!

  31. Tereshchenko’s Ненецко-русский словарь from 1965… probably still the most thorough single lexical source on Tundra Nenets.

    Thank you for this reference, J Pystynen! In fact, I think it was the one I consulted so many years ago. Do you have any thoughts on the -ma in yedoma and the likelihood of Nenets etymology?

  32. I should clarify, since J Pystynen mentioned Mansi maa in his comments above.

    Is a compound arising in the context of a Komi-Nenets-Khanty-Mansi contact in the region at all likely? Such inter-language compounding is a very unconstrained proposal. The Mansi maa looks like a good candidate for the final of yedoma, but is there any direct Nenets-Mansi contact, unmediated by Khanty (in which the forms mĕγ, mĕχ, muw “earth, land” are cognate to the Mansi, I gather, along with mu in Komi)?

  33. I definitely would not expect finding a mixed Nenets–Mansi compound or much Mansi loans in Nenets (though I am not confident on making a call on if *any* exist), I only mentioned maa in response to the erämaa proposal. If it’s worth anything, we would maybe rather get one step closer from aaťim-maa, or earlier *ääťim-mëë, as the Northern Mansi for ’empty land / area’ (lit. “isn’t-land”)… Though I’m still not clear on how a word for ‘wilderness’ would be supposed to give the meaning of ‘yedoma’. Or is Chudinov talking about a different Russian dialect term that does mean ‘wilderness’ in general?

    (Komi mu is certainly cognate, Khanty *mĕɣ is usually considered so too but the front vowel remains unexplained.)

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