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Tecto tech talk

Geologist and science writer Nina Morgan discovers some excellent ways to confuse colleagues and influence people.

lkjI've always considered science writing a great way to introduce non-scientists to the wonders and importance of science.  But successful science writing does come at a price.  In presenting complex ideas in simple but lively prose, deficient in the passive voice and easily understood and appreciated by the public at large, you often lose the respect of your scientific colleagues.   I see their point. If the conclusions and arguments in your geological magnum opus can be instantly understood by other scientists, let alone by any educated reader, your non-geological colleagues could easily come to the conclusion that geology is actually quite a simple subject, requiring no particular intelligence to pursue.

Erudition in action

But, argued prose style guru and prose policeman, Nicholas Vanserg – aka. Hugh McKinstry (1896-1961) mining geologist and professor of geology at Harvard University – "by following just a few simple rules, you can ensure that your audience is well and truly baffled by your erudition".  Top of his list is to build up a collection of highly specialised terminologies.  This is certainly a lesson that stratigraphers – whose speciality, after all, really is based on fairly straightforward concepts – took to heart in back in the days when geosynclines reigned supreme.

Vanserg particularly admired a mythical paper that revealed how to differentiate between a 'eugeosyncline, an exogeosyncline, an autogeosyncline, a zeugogeosyncline, an epieugeosyncline, a taphrogeosyncline, a paraliageosyncline and a miogeosyncline.'  Having had no luck simply copying this phrase into Google Translate, I had to turn to several on-line geological dictionaries to find out the meaning of these geosynclinal references.  What erudition! It took me at least half an hour to track them all down – and that's with a fast broadband connection.

Hard rock

Petrologists at the US Geological Survey (USGS) went one better with their definition of a ‘cactolith’, an intrusive body of rock that resembles a saguaro cactus. The term and its associated definition, 'a quasi horizontal chonolith composed of anastomosing ductoliths, whose distal ends curl like a harpolith, thin like a sphenolith, or bulge discordantly like an akmolith or ethmolith', was created, tongue-in-cheek, by USGS geologist Charles B Hunt. Hunt's wonderfully mind-boggling definition somehow made it through the USGS reviewing process and into print where it appears in the USGS Professional paper Geology and Geography of the Henry Mountains region, Utah, published in 1953.

But aside from boosting our professional status, geological jargon is also a real boon for Scrabble players. 'Xenolith' placed on a triple-word square, I'm reliably informed, adds up to 54 points. But that relatively familiar term has nothing on zeugogeosyncline, defined by those in the know as 'a parageosyncline that receives its sediment from eroded complementing highland within the craton'.  Put that down on a triple-word square and you'll garner an impressive 96!


Thanks to Philip Powell of the Oxford University Museum of Natural History for drawing my attention to an Opinion piece about simple English by Derek Ager in the July 1985 issue of Geology Today, which provided the inspiration for this vignette.  Other sources include How to write geologese by Nicholas Vanserg, Economic Geology, vol 47, 1952, pp. 220-223; and the websites:



  • If the past is the key to your present interests, why not join the History of Geology Group (HOGG).  For more information and to read the latest HOGG Newsletter, visit the HOGG website at:, where you'll also find abstracts for the talks and posters presented at the Conference on Geological Collectors and Collecting, April 2011 available free to download as a pdf file.

* Nina Morgan is a geologist and science writer based near Oxford, currently working on a book about the Geology of Gravestones.