The Smell of Rain

The way people use words and language – especially when they’re talking – where meanings and phrases come from and how they develop and change over time has always fascinated me.

Every day Dictionary.com emails me the Word of the Day and Thursday’s word was “Petrichor”.

This is “a distinctive scent, usually described as earthy, pleasant, or sweet, produced by rainfall on very dry ground.

Watercolour and chalk sketch of rain in County Clare
Petrichor – Summer rain in County Clare

I love this smell and sucking in big blasts of it when we get a summer shower – probably because it evokes all sorts of sunny holiday memories. There are some smells that I’d like to trap in a jar and ration out for sniffs in the middle of cold grey winter days (like today). It’s given me a ridiculous amount of pleasure to find out there is a specific word for it – its the little things.

Ink and charcoal drawing with a bowl
Collecting petrichor

The origin of the word is quite poetic “Petrichor is an uncommon word used in mineral chemistry or geochemistry to describe the pleasant scent of rain falling on very dry ground. Petrichor is a compound of the Greek nouns pétrā “rock, stone” (as in petroleum “rock oil”) and īchṓr, the juice or liquid—not blood!—that flows in the veins of the Olympian gods. About 60 percent of ancient Greek words have no satisfactory etymology; īchṓr is one of them. Petrichor was coined by two Australian chemists, Isabel “Joy” Bear and Richard Grenfell Thomas, in 1964.

Robert McFarlane’s book “Landmarks” is a magical account of the local language of nature and landscape. Just a sample of the many pages on words for and about rain. Current favourite: “bachram – very heavy rain (literally “boisterous behaviour”) Irish