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The Word

Language eruption

What the volcano gave us

By Erin McKean
May 2, 2010

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The eruption of the Eyjafjallajökull volcano in Iceland has disrupted the journeys of tens of thousands of travelers, cost airlines more than $2 billion so far, and, quite possibly, altered the ecosystem of the entire planet.

But it has also been a magnificent spectacle, not least for its sudden effect on the language. Unless you just happen to be an Icelandic volcanologist who also maintains jet engines, everything about Eyjafjallajökull has been new and surprising. The most obvious new ”word,” of course, is the name of the volcano itself, a gorgeously unpronounceable (for non-Icelandic speakers) arrangement of vowels and consonants. On the website I run, Wordnik, the page for Eyjafjallajökull was visited more than 10,000 times during the first few days of the eruption, making it our top word for the week.

Bloggers and other news sources have taken up the challenge of steering English speakers toward the best possible approximation of the volcano’s name. ”AYE-yah Fyat-lah Yir-kutl” is the one that I’ve found easiest to use — although I still can’t say it quickly. Pronunciations by news reporters varied so much that one Icelandic website ran an article titled ”Múhaha” about how funny (to Icelandic ears) the mispronunciations were. Spelling it isn’t any easier — Eyjafjallajökull has been called, with only a bit of overstatement, the most cut-and-pasted word ever.

Eyjafjallajökull isn’t the first volcano whose challenging name has become a kind of cultural in-joke. In 1943, lava from the eruption of the Parícutin volcano in Mexico swallowed a town called San Juan Parangaricutrio, whose already-long name was lengthened even further in a popular song. It became ”Parangaricutirimícuaro,” a classic Spanish-language tongue-twister not unlike our ”supercalifragilisticexpialidocious.”

Aside from the pronunciation question, the recent eruption has given rise to plenty of examples of lexical inventiveness: it was verbed (people who were stuck places were volcanoed); it created a new prefix (the ones who enjoyed their time wherever they were stuck were on volcation); and it gave rise to new nicknames. One commenter on the blog Language Log suggested that, since the plume from the eruption was so high and so striking, that we give up trying to pronounce Eyjafjallajökull and just call it ”the Eyefull Tower.”

Many people have been taking joy in hauling out existing, but rarer, words related to volcanism (or, in British English, vulcanism). These range from the very obscure phreatoplinian (a specialist term for a Plinian eruption combined with water vapor, resulting in the collapse of the eruption column) to the also-Icelandic jökulhlaup (a glacial outburst flood produced by a volcanic eruption). Also pulled from the archives were archaisms such as flammivomous (vomiting flames) as well as ordinary words seen in specialized contexts, such as the word plume in ”ash plume.”

From volcanologists, we heard about the eruption of Iceland’s Laki volcano in 1783, whose cloud of ash and gas spread over Europe and was known at the Laki fog or Laki haze. We were reassured that, so far, there hadn’t been a pyroclastic flow (the ”classic” eruption of hot gases and rock, which flows down the sides of the volcano), but were warned that we are possibly overdue for a supervolcano, an eruption that happens every hundred thousand years or so (the last was about 70,000 years ago) and which can send 1000 cubic kilometers of ash and rock and gas into the atmosphere, drastically affecting the weather.

Since the major disruption from Eyjafjallajökull involved the possibility (however remote) of airplanes falling from the sky, commentators made us familiar with aviation terms we might not have heard before, such at pitot tubes (which help measure airspeed and could be jammed with ash), and the disturbing engine-related terms compression stall and flameout, two things airplanes were grounded to prevent.

The relative mildness of the eruption, as volcanoes go, and the comparatively minor toll for anyone who wasn’t traveling through Europe, also meant that people didn’t feel bad about making jokes about the situation. A popular joke on Twitter was that Europe had asked Iceland to send ”CASH not ASH”; and other volcano-related tweets were marked with #ashtag, a play on ”hashtag.”

It’s fair to say that any news event of sufficient magnitude will leave traces behind in our language. Some become permanent — like the suffix -gate, from the Watergate scandal — and some vanish, like shoeicide bomber for Richard Reid’s attempt to ignite his footwear on a plane. We’re too close right now to know how influential Eyjafjallajökull will be, language-wise. It’s unlikely our new knowledge of Icelandic pronunciation will stick. But sometimes volcanoes change the language in ways you don’t expect. The eruption of Krakatoa in 1883 — which had an enormous effect on the planet, with shockwaves felt around the world for days — led scientists to notice something they initially called the ”equatorial smoke stream.” Many decades and a much catchier name later, it’s a household word: the jet stream.

Erin McKean is a lexicographer and founder of Wordnik.com. E-mail her at erin@wordnik.com.

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