Monday, January 23, 2012

Today's word: virga

Pronunciation: Virga is pronounced not with a soft g, as in "*I'm on the verge o' losin' my job!" but with a hard g, like "I'll never get over Gus tattooing my grandmother's name on his inner thigh!"

If you don't know what the word means, you might try to compare virga with words like criteria, phenomena, and curricula — plurals all. But no, virga is neither "two sets of twins" nor "two virgins"; as it turns out, virga and virgo aren't even etymologically related. Virgo is from Latin for "young woman"; virga — from New Latin meaning "rod or twig" — is a meteorological term that has to do with things falling from the sky.

And not young women, either, even if the idea of virgins falling from the sky might seem exciting. And it would be, for a while. That excitement would quickly turn to horror because of the sudden stop at the bottom.

Unless those gravity-plagued virgins, like virga, never hit the ground.

Have you ever wondered why sometimes the news station's Doppler radar says it's raining on your house, but the view from your window disagrees? That's virga. You see, virga is a wisp of precipitation that evaporates before it hits the ground. Virga often falls from clouds in columns or shafts, rod-like (hence the derivation), but can be curved back by the wind, creating clouds that look like they have tails.

An beautiful example of virga. Note the lack of falling virgins.
Image by 0olong via Flickr
The more I look, too, the more I find that the Latin virga has led to all types of words that refer (sometimes obliquely) to a great many straight and skinny or twig-like things:

In Gregorian chant notation, a virga is a note that looks a lot like a quarter note, but with the stem on the wrong side (the stem gives it its name).

Then there's the virgule, that straight diagonal slash that separates the numerator and denominator of a fraction.  

Vergatus is a fairly common species designation for both plants and animals, presumably because of their striped coloration or stick-like appearance. They have fun and mystical names like the perplexing scrubwren (Sericornis virgatus), the snake-eyed skink (Cryptoblepharus virgatus), the Tiki fern (Asparagus virgatus), and the golden threadfin bream (Nemipterus virgatus).

And sometimes virga is less abstract — not rod-like, but an actual rod or staff, as in this quotation from Francis Bacon:
Præcipue autem lignum, sive virga, versus superiorem partem curva est.
(Every staff of empire is truly crooked at the top.)*
But you word nerds probably know (or suspect) some other words that are etymologically related to virga. Gimme what ya got!

And thanks to Chuck Lofton of WTHR for mentioning virga. It might be the first time I've ever learned a new word from a weather forecast.

* Source:
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