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  • Dalur Júlíuson

Word Porn: Petrichor

Updated: Apr 12

The word petrichor, describing the familiar and pleasant smell of the first rain on dry earth, was coined by two scientists writing in Nature in 1964. They put it together from two Greek words: petra, stone, and ichor, the divine fluid that ran through the veins of the ancient Greek gods. (When later Christian writers rejected the pagan gods, Ichor came to mean congealed blood, or puss, and it retained this meaning into the nineteenth century).


Petrichor is a beautiful word, it piques the mind. There's a simple pleasure in attaching a name to something familiar yet hitherto nameless. And it chimes: a word pleasing to say and hear, a cellar door. But it's also a word that lives almost exclusively online. Outside a smattering of pop-science pieces on 'argillaceous odour' (the smell of soil after rain and the complicated biological and chemical processes that produce it), its Google hits are nearly all online dictionaries, or belong to the realm of internet culture sometimes called 'word porn'.


Word porn caters to a magpie fascination with beautiful, strange, or untranslatable words. Like its close relations food porn, nature porn, and property porn, it is a label that attaches to images, image macros, and compilations, shared on social media - Imgur, Reddit, Buzzfeed compilations - and, at present, 13.5 million Instagram posts. (The word porn underlying these formations is only two years older than the word petrichor, appearing in 1962). If the word petrichor is known at all, it's from scenic stock images overlaid with white text: Petrichor (n.), -- the '(n.)' adds a flattering bookishness -- followed by a short definition. It may be presented along other euphonic, interesting, or not-quite-translatable words, like German Verschlimmbessern, to make something worse by trying to improve it, and Japanese tsundoku, to amass a collection of books while neglecting to read them.



Petrichor rarely, if ever, appears without its definition, and can therefore feel a bit inauthentic, not quite as real as other words. Despite its relative newness, however, it resonates pleasingly with some accounts of the scent of earth in ancient literature. The Greek geographer Pausanius (second century BCE) wrote a lengthy description of Greece in which he describes two strange lumps of clay that stand on the river's edge in the ancient town of Panopeus. He tells us that these clay-coloured stones 'smell very like the skin of a man', and that local legend holds that they are what remains of the clay from which the titan Prometheus shaped the first people (10.4.4). Ovid said more about Prometheus's making of man in the opening lines of his Metamorphoses:


or did Prometheus

take the new soil of earth (that still contained

some godly element of Heaven's Life)

and use it to create the race of man;

first mingling it with water of new streams;

so that his new creation, upright man,

was made in image of commanding Gods?

On earth the brute creation bends its gaze,

but man was given a lofty countenance

and was commanded to behold the skies;

and with an upright face may view the stars:—

and so it was that shapeless clay put on

the form of man till then unknown to earth.


(Ovid, Metamorphoses 1. 76-88)


The earth's dry soil, still charged with the power of creation, combines with these primordial streams to give life to the first people, and produces a scent that lingers upon Pausanius's ancient clays. The word petrichor, combining clay and the divine blood of the gods is a similar act of creation. There's something pleasing in how these stories bring together scent and divine or human skin.










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