Thursday 30 May 2013

Petrichor and Inyinnyi

File:Uluru1 2003-11-21.jpgThe Sydney Writers' Festival is over and done. They are not long, the days of wine and roses. But if you want to know what they're like you can listen to the delightful and erudite David Astle chatting to me by following this link.

After leaving Sydney I went through the old Australian ritual of flyabout and ended up in a gorge in Uluru (or Ayers Rock depending on your persuasion) where I met a delightful novelist called Lia Hills. We immediately fell to talking about strange words. She asked me if I knew the distinctive smell of rain falling on dry ground. I said "Petrichor" and started to explain that the word was thought up by two scientists in 1964. They even explained the etymology of the name in an article in Nature:

The diverse nature of the host materials has led us to propose the name ‘petrichor’ for this apparently unique odour which can be regarded as an ‘ichor’ or ‘tenuous essence’ derived from rock or stone. This name, unlike the general term ‘argillaceous odour’, avoids the unwarranted implication that the phenomenon is restricted to clays or argillaceous materials; it does not imply that petrichor is necessarily a fixed chemical entity but rather it denotes an integral odour.

But it turns out, as with most things in Australia, that the Aborigines got there first. Lia Hills told me the Pitjantjatjara language, which is the local language around the rock, contains the word Inyinnyi (pronounced in-yin-nyi), which means the smell you get when water lands on dry earth.

Apparently the elders all know this word, but it is now dying out.

File:Uluru Panorama.jpg
Q: How much does Uluru weigh?
A: One stone.


  1. Hi Mark, just a little note - it's Ayers Rock not Ayer's, named after Henry Ayers. I guess you could call it Ayers' Rock, but no apostrophes are used officially.

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  2. Hi Mark, I was thrilled you came to the Sydney Writers' Festival. Just over one year ago, I had been in Sydney just 2 months when I discovered your book in the lovely Berkelouw bookshop on Oxford Street (I hope you had a chance to visit the place during your stay). I performed some very dull reception duties when I first arrived in the country and I spent hours trawling through your posts - your blog was such a delight and very addictive. My favourite to this day is still the misheard origin of 'donkey's ears'.

    Anyway, thanks for a fantastic whirlwind etymological tour at Walsh Bay and please do keep us posted if you make any new discoveries on Dutch courage.


    1. Thank you so much for coming along, and I'll try and check up on the netherlandish guts.

  3. And this word - petrichor, that is - has become much more popular (especially within the circles of rabid fangirls, of which I am one) after its use in Doctor Who!