The NY Times has introduced a promising new feature at Schott’s Vocab, their vocabulary blog: Schott’s Daily Lexeme. “Schott’s Vocab is honored and delighted to have joined forces with the inestimable Oxford English Dictionary to offer each day a word of note. Naturally, being a Daily Lexeme – rather than a ‘word of the day’ – these offerings will tend toward the curious, humorous, sesquipedalian and archaic.” The first post brought to our attention the word petrichor (PET-rikor), “A pleasant, distinctive smell frequently accompanying the first rain after a long period of warm, dry weather in certain regions.” It’s great that there’s a word for that; it’s perhaps not the most euphonious word, but it’s not bad, and my wife and I intend to use it whenever the occasion presents itself. The second post showcases facinorous “Extremely wicked or immoral; grossly criminal; vile, atrocious, heinous; infamous,” which is not as much fun (because there are already plenty of perfectly good words for it) but is still worth knowing about. The best part: each entry links to the OED entry for the word (petrichor, coined in 1964; facinorous, first recorded in 1548), so you can see it even if you don’t have a subscription. Thanks for the heads-up, Bonnie!


  1. Since “rain” is the title of my work, I should be interested in that word describing fragrance, and I am; however, I came here to ask an Oxford question: did I hear, the other night on the Colbert show, of something called “the Oxford comma”??

  2. @Shelley: I haven’t watched The Colbert Report recently, but that’s quite possible. In lists of more than two elements, with only one conjunction, a comma may precede that conjunction:
    > animal, vegetable, or mineral
    > signed, sealed, and delivered
    or not:
    > animal, vegetable or mineral
    > signed, sealed and delivered
    This optional comma is usually called the “Oxford” or “serial” comma.

  3. Yup, here‘s the Wikipedia article. I’m all for serial commas.

  4. petrichor
    I knew that smell very well in El Paso, the smell of damp dust. I suppose it’s caused by what one might call mud aerosols.

  5. marie-lucie says

    So “petrichor” occurs after a rain in a dry climate with much bare soil, but is there a word for the pleasant smell before a rain, especially in the summer, in an area with copious vegetation?

  6. Now that have read the origin of the word, I find the coinage to be an unhappy one. How to pronounce it ?
    The problem is that “ichor” is stressed on the first syllable, so there’s nowhere for the “r” in “petr” to go. PETR-IK-ur is too difficult for the English tongue, and would tend to turn into “pet ickur”. PE-TRIK-ur, just like PE-TRI-CHOR as I first read it, doesn’t seem to mean anything.
    In German, Schlammduft would be nice. Similarly with a French bouegrance. As Hat says, petrichor is dysphonious. But I can’t make anything better out of the words under fragrance in the MW thesaurus: “Aromud”, “balmud”, “dustcense”, “mudolence” are all unconvincing. A plain old “dustdamp” might be servicable, or “groundsmell”, or “mudor”.

  7. is there a word for the pleasant smell before a rain
    The medical term for the feeling induced by that smell is “anticiprecipitation”.

  8. Yes, Oxford Comma is a song by Vampire Weekend and Stephen was discussing it when them last week (about half way in).

  9. “Petrichor” is one of my favourite words. I’ve always liked the sound of it, the falling cadence, like the rain on the earth itself.

  10. the falling cadence
    So you pronounce it PEH-tri-chor ?

  11. marie-lucie says

    “Petrichor” must rhyme with “manticore”.

  12. PET-rikor
    I have trouble breaking a tr up.
    How to pronounce it ?
    Note that the OED sanctions both long- and short-i versions in both American and British English.

  13. There were also pronunciation problems with the Persian word behind manticore, as it says here:

    The manticore myth was of Persian origin, where its name was “man-eater” (from early Middle Persian مارتیا martya “man” (as in human) and خوار xwar- “to eat”). The English term “manticore” was borrowed from Latin mantichora, itself borrowed from Greek mantikhoras—an erroneous pronunciation of the original Persian name.

  14. the OED sanctions both long- and short-i versions
    My problem is not with the vowels, but how to divide the word into pronouncable syllables at all, and which of these to stress.

  15. I think it too bad that a word coined only in 1964 as a composite should require intensive study of a dictionary entry to figure out how to pronounce the thing at all. The OED people must here be flying by the seat of their pants, just as we all have to with awkward neologisms. Their recommendations are of no more use to me than my own sense of th’euphonic proprieties.

  16. The OED says unlike the general term `argillaceous odour’, (it) avoids the unwarranted implication that the phenomenon is restricted to clays or argillaceous materials
    I don’t like “odour”, but “argillaceous” is a good word, and a welcome alternative to “clayey” — one of the worst words in the language, especially for anyone who lives over the stuff and has to use it.
    Grumbly, just say PE-trikor and be thankful you don’t need to say “clayey”.

  17. just say PE-trikor
    No, I have decided that the word is neologistic small fry. You couldn’t feed a flea with it. Being an eco-friendly kind of guy, I have now cast it back into the outer darkness.

  18. Only the better sort might understand “argillaceous”, so that’s one strike against it on my scorecard. What’s so hard about pronouncing “clayey” ? It’s just like “Jimmy”, “Billy”, “Grumbly” and so on. Maybe you are taking the spelling too seriously. After all, we don’t usually say “thumB”, but instead “thum”.

  19. dearieme says

    Could that be the smell that my wife and I call “the electric smell”? It’s refreshing, all right; it’s tempting to stay out in the rain to enjoy it.

  20. I pronounce the medial TR in “petrichor” just like that in “atrium”. Agree on “clayey”.

  21. The argilliferous stuff beneath my feet in the region I’m from is called “gault” – a stiff compact clay or thick heavy clayey soil. Doesn’t have an adjective form, only a noun according to the dictionary and even though we’re all standing on it most wouldn’t have a clue what “gault” is?

  22. In these parts, and probably anywhere with large enough seasonal variations in temperature, there is a smell that announces spring, but it’s faint and disappears within a day, possibly, I think, because we acclimatise to it, as we do to all smells.
    I assume that there is a threshold temperature for the release of batches of volatiles and the first day that that temperature is reached they take to the air. I assume this because, oddly, there is a hint of road tar in this scent of spring.
    Is there a word for this evanescent scent? With its harsh winters, I could imagine Russian is full of therm.

  23. Russians have a conflicted relationship with spring. The immediate effect of its arrival is that travel becomes more difficult (in the old days, more or less impossible) because the roads turn to deep mud. And the “Whee, winter’s over” feeling isn’t so strong because Russians tend to be very fond of winter.

  24. Is that why Solzhenitsyn went to live in Vermont? Friends who live in that part of the world tell me that their spring is what they call ‘mud season.’

  25. Talking to a Swedish woman once, I was told that Scandinavians have a summer exaltation comparable to their winter depression. The horrible thing about Norse winters isn’t snow or cold (which are basically easy to deal with, and fun if you do it right) but lack of sunlight (due to the northern latitude). But they have proportionately long days in the summertime, and she said that they just go crazy then.

  26. Artifex Amando says

    Well, if you call 27 hours of no-sleep crazy, than that’s what summer makes me! The 13 hours of sleep afterwards was also pleasant, but not as fun. because I rarely remember my dreams.
    Artifex Amando Aestatamens

  27. It’s crazy in the arctic mostly in the sense that people develop irregular sleeping hours and so they’re doing the usual things at unconventional times. Like paying their neighbors a visit at three in the morning or going out fishing all night.
    As for the winter, my wife was working in Svalbard (Spitsbergen) for a week during the dark period, and she says that’s their high season for tourism. Nowadays it’s an alternative destination for the Norwegian rich, apparently, (liquor is untaxed). They are up all night partying. I suppose if you wanted to be sure to reach someone in Svalbard during business hours, it would only be possible at the equinoxes.

  28. “Petrichor,” for all its trying, doesn’t get at the marvelous smell in the desert after a scant (ie, typical) “rain” (what folks in other parts of the country would call a fleeting sprinkle). If “petrichor” is the smell of dry stone (or, by extension, earth) then it can’t describe the delicate, relaxing exhalation of the desert vegetation when it senses water for the first time in ages — we called it the smell of “desert sage” or more commonly, “desert mesquite.”
    And the argilliferous stuff just under the sand — baked as hard as brick, impervious to rain, and having no scent (wet or dry) that I know of — we called “caliche.”

  29. Eel: By a strange coincidence, the word “argilliferous” made me think of eels even before I saw your comment. Are you anguilliferous?

  30. Stranger still, I live near Ely – ‘the isle of eels’. It’s where I keep my hovercraft which is full of ’em.

  31. Time for a “folk/fake” etymology: (Pet-)rock-odor?

  32. In northern New England and southeastern Canada, there are three seasons: Snow, Mud, and Flies, and the worst of these is Flies.

  33. marie-lucie says

    In Canada, flies are not just southeastern (they not bad on the Atlantic coast), they get worse as you go North.

  34. A hovercraft full of eels sounds like a can of worms. There’s a district in London called Ealing (see also Barking and Tooting), I never thought it was anything to do with eels, but perhaps it is.

  35. Mosquitoes in the arctic are much worse than winter darkness, especially in inland marshy areas. I saw a Greenland tv interview, conducted outdoors, where both parties were wrapped in burqa-like netting (but no slit for the eyes).

  36. That -ing is one of the charming features of English place names. What is its origin?

  37. Here’s an -ing, Sir Arthur Streeb-Greebling, talking about eels.

  38. The Old English suffix was much more widespread (or perhaps it would be more accurate to say Old English had several different -ing suffixes; I’m too lazy to do research at the moment), and one use was as a general adjectival/possessive ending, so that Gidding was originally “(settlement) of (a man named) Gydda.”

  39. I wonder whether that placename use of -ing is related to the (excessive) Schwabian fondness for names in -ingen. Near Stuttgart there are Böblingen, Vaihingen, Mörhingen, Waiblingen, Schwieberdingen, Markgröningen, Möglingen, Hemmingen, Gerlingen, Göppingen … You don’t have that in the Rheinland, I’m glad to say.

  40. “ingen” means “kein”, in Norwegian.

  41. marie-lucie says

    words in -ing(en)
    I think that in place names this suffix indicates a collective, eg Gidding is not just Gydda’s own place but the place of his whole family or clan. In France in some regions there are lots of names in -ière attached to a personal name, eg La Martinière or La Chauvelière meaning the farm or estate of Martin or Chauveau and his desdendants (the suffix does not mean “farm” or even “place” itself, as it is much more widespread).

  42. And Bingen.
    There’s a Going street in Portland, OR, which seems appropriate, and also a Failing School, which seems less so.

  43. M-l is right (of course) about the collective aspect.

  44. I smell a very distinctive smell for the first few moments of a rainstorm. I’ve always thought of this as the smell of wet asphalt, though I’m not really sure why. A couple of people have told me that this smell is ozone, but I’m not sure I believe them. Is this the same as petrichor? The reason I’m not sure is because I don’t associate it with particularly long dry spells, which I think are pretty rare where I live.

  45. Petrichor is a clue in tonight’s Jeopardy!, maybe not by coincidence.

  46. Thanks, language hat and other poster! I’ll tell my summer school students they are using this classy comma.

  47. marie-lucie says

    LH, i just remember little tidbits from readings here and there.

  48. I think ozone is actually odorless, despite the smell of the ozone you’re supposed to get at the seaside.
    Good thing someone’s keeping an eye on Jeopardy.

  49. It now occurs to me that the word probably has a good agent.

  50. ozone is actually odorless
    I think the key is that ozone in harmful pollutant quantities isn’t concentrated enough for humans to smell. So, in some sense “bad ozone” is odorless. But we can in higher concentrations (less than .1 ppm, the OSHA workplace limit), like from a broken elevator motor.
    ὄζω means ‘smell’ after all.

  51. Trying to smell the sea would be a good way to pass the time if you’re ever trapped in an elevator.

  52. John Woldemar Cowan says

    Except that the smell of the sea (known to the seagoing as “the smell of the land”) isn’t about ozone at all; it’s about dimethyl sulfide, a gas produced by a particular strain of bacteria that live off decaying plankton. The decay process generates dimethyl sulfide propionate as a side effect, which these bacteria convert into dimethyl sulfide. This is a Good Thing, as the latter is a measurably anti-greenhouse gas: its molecules are highly hygroscopic (tend to absorb water) which creates droplets in the atmosphere that form seeds for clouds.

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