Wednesday, September 1, 2010

A Few New Words I've Learned Recently

With all the old stuff I read (18th and 19th century English stuff) you'd think I would run into new words regularly. But that's not the case. Those older documents tend to use the same words we do now, but with different shades of meaning. I'd have to go back another century to find large numbers of unknown words.

But I ran into four new ones in the last few days for my work, two in floodplain computer program manuals and two in technical magazines. The latter two first:

pollutograph – I didn't have to look this up. Surely this is someones attempt to say "this graph contains data plots related to pollution. I'm not sure we needed a new word for that, but I suppose it doesn't hurt anything.

sonication – This was used in the context of biofilms on surfaces, and how, in some study of biofilms as pollutants, after they scraped as much of the biofilm as they could from a concrete surface they removed more by sonication. Now that seemed if must have to do with applying sound waves as a means of dislodging a film from a surface. I did look this one up, and I was right from the context. So, I need to use these two in a sentence.

"The pollutograph was more accurate after they added the data generated from removing the biofilm by sonication." Not bad. Now, the two from the manuals.

thalweg – This one threw me. Given it was used in the manual of a computer program for analyzing floodplains, it obviously has something to do with water flow. I had to look it up: "1. a line, as drawn on a map, connecting the lowest points of a valley; 2. the middle of the main navigable channel of a waterway that serves as a boundary line between states." There's other definitions as well. Basically it's the low points of a valley/river from source to mouth.

dendritic – This one threw me worse than the last. The sentence I first saw it in was: "The Hydrologic Modeling System is designed to simulate the precipitation-runoff processes of dendritic watershed systems." The dictionary definitions include: "formed or marked like a dendrite; of a branching form, arborescent; any of the short, branched, threadlike extensions of a nerve cell, which conduct impulses toward the cell body." Well, what does that have to do with floodplains? It's used in the manual for the program that calculates runoff rates from precipitation. When you think of a watershed map, with only the boundaries shown and the flow channels all merging to one point, it kind of looks like a nerve cell. So I guess engineering has borrowed that from biology.

Time to use these last two in a sentence: "The dendritic watershed of the Mississippi River results in variable runoff, the forces from which are constantly modifying the thalweg of the river." Not a great sentence, but I'll stand by it.

All of which has very little to do with the main purpose this blog, my snail's-pace attempts to become a writer. I suppose learning new words are part of a writer's work, but I can't imagine using any of these words in any of my works now in progress or contemplated. No, not even Ronny Thompson, college education in agricultural engineering, is going to say to his less-educated dad, "Gee, Dad, did you ever notice how our farm resembles a nerve cell, dendritic as it is." Or "That big spring rain relocated the thalweg of our drainage ditch." AGH—ain't gonna happen.

But it's still fun to learn a few new words, especially work related, in contemporary documents.


Gary said...

Good words. I used a sonication device many years ago in the paleo-oceanography lab to clean gunk out of siliceous microfossils. The device consisted of a small, water-filled stainless steel basin with a vibrating mechanism in the base. Fill it with water, lower a sample vial into the water, sonicate for 30 seconds or so, then sieve the sample to keep the fossils and lose the gunk.

Thalweg is a new one, but dendritic is an old friend to a botanist. One brilliance of English lies in the easy creation of words like pollutograph.

All that said, I now must absquatulate.

David A. Todd said...