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Waiting for Petrichor

Ammon Shea recently spent a year of his life reading the OED from start to finish. Over the next few months he will be posting weekly blogs about the insights, gems, and thoughts on language that came from this experience. His book, Reading the OED, will be published by Perigee in July. In the post below Ammon, an expert dictionary reader, reflects on rain.

My girlfriend Alix and I are driving across the country, as people are occasionally wont to do. I know that this particularly American rite of passage is not uncommon but it is one that I have never completed. And so even though we are not in fact driving all the way across I am nonetheless quite excited.

The weather is quite excited as well, and it chooses to make apparent this excitement by raining almost continuously as we’ve driven south and west. I love the rain, and mind its on and off-again exuberance not at all. Each fresh storm that we drive into reminds me of just how sodden English is with its own words for rain.

There are small clutches of largely archaic Scottish words that can describe a different kind of rain, and can be so much more specific than simply relying on drizzle/rain/downpour. There are words such as blirts (‘a short dash of rain coming with a gust of wind’), bracks (‘a sudden heavy fall of rain’), and driffle (‘to rain fitfully…as at the “tail” of a shower’).

There are words for things that have been wet with rain (impluvious), and words that can describe the drip of your clothes when you’ve gotten soaked (platch).

Driving down the highway there is evidence of the rain everywhere, even in those few intervals between showers (also know as hot gleams). The clouds ahead that are dark and ponderous are imbriferous (rain-bringing) and the cars that approach on the other side of the highway and have just passed out of a storm of their own are bedrabbled (made wet or dirty with rain and mud).

There are rain words whose main function is not to describe something, but rather to arouse a vocabularian sense of whimsy, such as hyetal (of or belonging to rain).

I am sure that has hyetal many fine technical uses, but whenever I think of it I simply wonder what sort of things belong to the rain and if the rain ever gets tired of owning them.

My favorite world for rain is the one that comes to mind when we take advantage of a pluvial lull, and stop driving. When we get out of the car the smell of freshly fallen rain rising off the sidewalk and the word that describes this smell inextricably link themselves in my brain–petrichor–and I cannot tell if the word makes me like the smell or the smell makes me like the word or if it matters at all.

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One Response to “Waiting for Petrichor”
  1. [...] an affair. It’s been going on for a few years now—a secret, hidden obsession with the word “petrichor.”(the smell after a rain, especially on dry earth.) We take long evening walks, delighting in the [...]

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