Never, until the frost of age grayed my beard, had I encountered technical terms about the water table. Hydrology had remained to me mercifully dehydrated. Vadose is said of water occurring above the water table and thus available to plant roots. Phreatic is water occurring below the water table in the so-called zone of saturation and thus water usually able to flow, to move. The water table itself is sometimes called the phreatic surface. The water table is the level below which the ground is saturated with water; that is, the soil pores and rock fractures are soaked in water.

I had to learn these terms when a giant, bully corporation building a hospital extension dug so deep into the soil of the block in which my house stood that the water table was altered by the hospital construction and, after 50 years of bone-dry basements, all the dwelling houses in that block became damp and wet and we had to put in sump pumps, drains and all manner of devices to keep rising water at bay. The board of governors of the hospital laughed at our plight – until we got two lawyers versed in dealing with corporate bullies. Our lawyers threatened to sue their pompous asses off. Then the noble elders gently relented and paid the entire cost of assorted sump-pumpery for every single dwelling house on our block. Bastards!

Phreatic (free-ATTIC)
English borrowed the word phreatic from French phréatique. Byzantine Greek had the adjective ϕρεατικός phreatikos ‘of, pertaining to, or from a well or cistern.’ That stemmed from ancient Greek ϕρέαρ φρέατος phrear, phreatos ‘a dug well, a water source not natural, a cistern, a reservoir, a water tank.’ That had entered the very earliest form of the Greek language, called nowadays Proto-Hellenic, as *pʰrḗwər, and phrewar came from the earliest ancestor of Greek and English that we know, from a root very ancient indeed in Proto-Indo-European and its descendant languages. In PIE its putative form was *bʰréh₁wr ‘source of water, well.’ That etymon for ‘water well’ had reflexes in many ancient and modern languages, such as Sanskrit भुर्वन्  bhúrvan ‘movement of water’ and Old Armenian աղբիւր ałbiwr ‘fountain, water source.’

 A Short Note on a Special Asterisk *
When in these columns you see an asterisk (*) placed in front of a word root, it means there is no printed proof of such a word root ever existing. The asterisk means the form is a hypothetical or conjectural construct, not an attested word. Yes, even etymologists have to guess sometimes. The asterisk makes clear that, in the study of a word’s history, fact of origin remains distinct from mere theory of origin.

This hydrological adjective stems from Latin vadōsus ‘pertaining to a vadum ‘a shallow area of water.’ Vadose in English describes underground water circulating in subterranean shallow conduits and caves above the water table. Latin vadum means ‘shallow water, fording place in a stream, shoal, and shallows (as a noun). In Latin aqua vadosa was a stream or brook or any water course able to be forded by humans or crossed by domestic animals.

Both words, vadum and vadosus, derive from the Latin verb vadere, ‘to go quickly, to walk fast.’ Remembering that Latin v was pronounced like our w, many will guess correctly that a close cousin, a reflex of vadum, occurs in our English verb, to wade, and in its modern German counterpart verb, waten. Ditto Swedish and Norwegian vada and even in the language of the Vikings, Old Norse vað.

Familiar Uses of the Latin Verb Vadere

An English synonym for guidebook no longer in common use is still encountered when reading Victorian and Edwardian English novels, namely, a vade-mecum. Since early in the 17th century a vade-mecum has meant a small manual, compact enough to be carried, for instance, in a traveler’s pocket as a travel guide. It is a simple Latin sentence and means literally “Go with me.”

Quo Vadis?
The Acts of Peter is a gospel NOT included in the canonical texts of the New Testament and so is branded apocryphal. But, as a text, it is no more or less dodgy than any other fanciful gobbet of Holy Writ. In this little tall tale from the ancient Near East, the apostle Peter is wisely running away from possible crucifixion in Rome. On the Appian Way, a highway leading south from Rome, Peter encounters a strange figure who turns out to be Christ risen from the dead. In the surviving Latin translation of this Greek gospel, Peter asks Jesus “Domine, quo vadis?” ‘Lord, wither goest thou?’ Jesus replies, "Romam eo iterum crucifigi" ‘I am going to Rome to be crucified again.’ This bold reply puts a little iron in Peter’s resolve and he returns to Rome, eventually to be crucified.

Down through pious ages, the phrase became popular among doubting Christians and other credulous ninnies of orthodoxy. In 1895 a Polish novelist, Henryk Sienkiewicz, wrote a best-selling novel about the encounter, translated into many languages, including an English so monosyllabic that some Hollywood producers could actually read it and turn it into a 1951 movie. The film was a hippodromatous extravaganza of semi-literate English dialogue and historical banality so tedious and goy-numbing as to send Clio, Muse of History, flitting to a mental hospital in search of a cut-rate lobotomy.  I think all a moviegoer has to know about Robert Taylor as a Roman general is that the actor's real name was Spangler Arlington Brugh. How simply darling!

Just to show that some Swedes cannot read Polish, Sienkiewicz was granted the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1905. It would not be the only time that glutinous, pietistic drivel was awarded a prize. My fave passage in The Acts of Peter informs the reader that Peter himself performed miracles. In the text - so help me God - Peter resurrects smoked fish and makes dogs talk. If ever you need help at your deli, Holy Pete is your boy!

'Domine, quo vadis?' by Annibali Carracci, 1607 CE

As our obscure polysyllabic vocable today, as a gift to true questers after recondite vocabulary, we present the wonderfully explosive adjective, phreatomagmatic, a relative newcomer to the coinage-gallery of modern geology.

Phreatomagmatic has this terse and apt definition in The Oxford English Dictionary “designating or relating to a volcanic eruption in which both steam from groundwater and an aerosol of magmatic gases and particles are expelled.” Scientific American magazine tells us that “phreatomagmatic eruptions … take place either when magma heats and cracks rock close to an underground water table or when sea-water somehow gains entry to the magma chamber.”

Magma is one of my especial pet words in geology. Magma is molten rock semi-liquid in nature. After magma is expelled from a volcano it is called lava. The root is an ancient Greek verb massein ‘to mix, to mingle together.’

And so, as we lie here prone on this spring day, our gardeners' ears pressed to earth’s peaty bosom, listening mayhap to the nurturing gurgle of subterranean waters, let us, however briefly, specify our beatitudes.

Bill Casselman, April 30, 2017

Text Copyright 2017 by William Gordon Casselman


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Two Hydrology Words

I was Forced to Learn

Increase your vocabulary with water table words, terms in hydrology, worth knowing even for an everyday gardener.

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