Saturday, June 26, 2010

Stalactites and Stalagmites

I was asked about the discrepancy in spelling between stalagmite and stalactite – specifically, why there is a g in one and a c in the other. It’s a matter of form. Stalactite comes from an adjective form (σταλακτοσ / stalaktos) that means oozing out in drops, or trickling. Stalagmite comes from a noun (σταλαγμα / stalagma) that means a drop or something which drops.

A stalactite hangs from the ceiling of a cave; a stalagmite builds up from the floor. In both cases, limestone-saturated water is at work, often dripping for centuries.

The spelling discrepancies have led to a mnemonic: the C in stalactite stands for ceiling; the G in stalagmite stands for ground.

Another term that uses the same word part is stalagmometer, an apparatus for measuring drops. It measures surface tension by determining the exact number of drops in a given quantity of a liquid.

A now rare word is stalagma, a distilled liquor. Distill comes from a Latin verb that means to drip or trickle down. The moonshiner’s still is in the same family.

Stalag, the name given to prison camps in Nazi Germany, is not connected. Instead, it is an abbreviation of stammlager, main camp.

SIDEBAR: Stalag 17

Available from McFarland & Co.: Word Parts Dictionary, 2nd edition

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