Word of the Week


Week fifteen: SIEROZEM (probability 11029), by David Sutton

SIEROZEM is a type of soil, brownish grey at the surface and lighter below. The word is of Russian origin, from seryi, grey, plus zemlya, earth, and it goes with two similar words: CHERNOZEM (or TSCHERNOSEM), a dark coloured soil full of humus, from Russian chernyi, black, and BRUNIZEM, a deep dark prairie soil developed from LOESS, from Russian bruni, brown.

Russian also gives us GLEI or GLEY, a bluish-grey sticky clay, PODSOL (or PODZOL), a leached soil formed in cool humid climates, RENDZINA, a fertile soil-type derived from a calcium-rich bedrock, SOLONCHAK, a pale grey soil, and SOLONETS or SOLONETZ, an alkaline soil-type having a hard dark subsoil under a thin friable topsoil. These latter derive from the Russian solon, salt.

But Russian is by no means the only language to have contributed to the vocabulary of soils. Greek gives SPODOSOL, an ashy soil, from Greek spodos, ash. Old Norse gives us YARFA (or YARPHA), a peaty soil in the Shetlands. German gives us MODER, a soil full of humus, and Danish the related MOR, while Italian offers FANGO, a clay or mud from thermal springs, fango being the Italian for mud, and TERRAMARA (or TERRAMARE), a dark earthy deposit formed under prehistoric pile-dwellings in Italy. Hindi gives us REGAR (or REGUR), a rich black soil of the Indian subcontinent.

But my own favourite soil word has to be GUMBOTIL, that denotes a dark sticky clay, formed by the weathering of boulder clay or glacial drift. It comes from GUMBO + TILL, where TILL means an unstratified glacial deposit and GUMBO in this sense refers to a fine soil in the West Indies that becomes muddy when wet; it can also refer to the mucilaginous pods of okra. GUMBO comes via French from a Bantu word, so it is just a happy coincidence that the word seems to suggest the suck and squelch of gumboots!

   













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