One of the tantalizing pleasures of word mining is knowing there’s always a rich vein of linguistic delights to be unearthed, no matter how unassuming the visible signs might be….it just might take some sustained digging to find them. But sometimes the rewards are laid out right before us with just a glance or two, like the gold nuggets strewn across the beaches of Nome that prompted its legendary gold rush.
The language of permafrost is of the latter kind, an absurdly copious domain for word lovers filled with terms that are intrinsically musical but together become a kind of poetry. In perusing writing about permafrost you will read of the earth as living material in the form frost blisters, boils, bulbs and heaves, ice wedges, lenses and veins. You will explore reticulate ice and river taliks and puzzle over solifluction aprons, sheets and lobes. And no matter what they might actually look like, I am content with the images evoked by stone garlands, stony earth circles and string fens.
But the word I bring to you today piqued my interest with its simple, memorable sound, making it a word I remembered but didn’t know: I present the pingo.
A pingo /PEENG-oh/ (also called a hydro- or cryo-laccolith, if you want to get all sciency about it) is a conical or dome-shaped earth mound of soil-covered ice. Pingos, which can reach well over 200 feet high and 2000 feet in diameter, are formed by freezing water forced to expand upward due to surrounding permafrost and we are specifically warned by the International Permafrost Association, in the form of its surprisingly captivating Multi-Language Glossary of Permafrost and Related Ground-Ice Terms, not to confuse the perennial pingo with its seasonal lookalike, the aforementioned frost blister, known more prosaically as a seasonal frost mound.
And lest you embarrass yourself at your next scrabble-klatsch, pingo isn’t, as you might expect, derived from the Latin pingo, meaning to paint, draw or decorate, and from which our words paint, picture and pigment emerged. In fact, the word pingo comes to us via Inuktitut—the principal Inuit language in Canada—which has the word pingu, meaning “small hill.”
Pingo is also a contranym, or a word with two opposite meanings (such as “fast,” which can mean quickly, as in driving fast, or fixed, as in “tie the rope fast”): pingo is sometimes used not to refer to a mound but to a depression, usually water-filled, that is left when a pingo of the first type collapses. This latter definition is one used in Robert Macfarlane’s incredible volume Landmarks, which the author describes as a “word-hoard of the astonishing lexis of landscape,” and where you’ll find tasty words like cuilbhean, jabble, swelk and twindle (to choose from just one page).
Outside of writing specifically about geology, I found examples of pingo in two sources I’ve come to expect to find such hapaxes: the work of more verbally adept science fictioneers and the inimitable Margaret Atwood.
From the former, we have this bit by Kim Stanley Robinson in Green Mars:
“This thaw-freeze cycle was causing frost heaving on an unprecedented scale; it was pretty near the usual two-magnitude enlargement compared to similar phenomena on Earth, and karsts and pingos a hundred times the size of their Terran analogues were big holes, and big mounds. All over Isidis these giant new holes and hummocks were blistering the landscape…”
From our Canadian friend to the west’s novel Life Before Man, you will find this exquisite complaint:
It was hard for Lesje [LEZHYə] to find men who were as monomaniacal about their subjects as she was about hers. They existed, but they tended to go out with Home Economics types. After a day of pondering surds and pingoes they wanted to put their feet up and eat grated carrot and marshmallow salads. They didn’t want to talk about Megalosaurus tibias or whether the pterosaurs had three-chambered or four-chambered hearts, which was what she wanted to talk about.
- pingo is slang for the penis in Spanish and Portuguese. And if you happen to have a chance to visit Cuba, you might benefit from knowing that sapingo is Cuban slang fora bullshitter.
- Kurt Wold’s Pingo Farm, in Fairbanks, Alaska, is the source of a variety of seeds adapted for cold-climate growing, including watermelons!
- Joe Dinkins’ beautiful home, perched atop one of the tallest pingoes in Interior Alaska, was for sale for 1.2 million dollars the last time I heard.