The Euphonic Story of Phlogisten and the Quark

Euphonious words make the world go round.

The relationship of this word to a euphonium is not accidental: euphonious means pleasing to the ear; a certain musicality. An ease of pronunciation, if you will.

Like mytacism, which applies to you if you have an excessive fondness for the letter ‘M’. Or quidnunc: the quintessential busybody. The derogatory name for a doctor is quack, because once upon a time, the old Dutch ointment sellers were called Quacksalvers. Some words  fly off the tongue: others leave you stuck in phonological mire.

It is in the world of science that things euphonious really seem to go a little awry.

There, the razor-sharp systems men of the science world might use their names to name something; or a string of referenced syllables becomes a name simply because no-one can think of anything better. Like the chemical sallicyl ally aldehyde. Or the word for an alignment of the planets, syzygy.  

These words are less than euphonious. They leave a little something to be desired. They take work. They are a marketing men’s nightmare.

The issue of euphonics raised its head during a fairly heated family dispute yesterday, as Phil and I contemplated the woodpile in busy silence.

It is not a pretty woodpile. It is one of two not very pretty woodpiles on which I am waging war.

“It needs to go, Phil,” I said bluntly. “It’s mainly bits of old drawer. I could take it to the tip today if you liked.”

Phil wilted a little. His woodpile is so much more to him than a pile of old chipboard pilfered from the carcasses of disastrously dilapidated furniture. His eye lights up when he looks at it, for this is free energy.

Just as Scrooge liked the dark because it was cheap, Phil loves tacky old formica because it is free heat. It is a metaphorical broadsword directed at those greedy fuel companies; a blow for Everyman’s inner caveman.

Man did this once in front of a cave after a day out hunting. These days, it’s more chimenea and chipboard. But the principle’s the same.

And Phil is right: there’s energy in that chipboard all right. A lot of things will burn, given the right conditions.

There was a time, we observed, when scientists would have assured us that it was chock-full of phlogiston.

It doesn’t roll off the tongue, does it? Not in any way a marketing man’s dream. Phlogiston-modelled on the Greek word meaning ‘burning up’ – is a laborious wade-theough-the-mire of a word. When I say it part of me doubts I will get through it to the other side. I am like Pilgrim in the Slough of euphonious Despond.

It is the word scientists used to explain the change in form when something burned. Thus, when Phil burns a piece of unsightly chipboard it disintegrates, and all is left is a pile if ash. When something was heated, the theory went, it consisted of phlogiston and ash, and the burning set the phlogiston free.

Poppycock, said the euphonically-named Antoine Lavoisier, who showed that in fact a gas was used in the burning: and he named it with equal musicality: oxygen.

Phlogiston is a legacy of the fact that scientists choose these names themselves. German chemist and physician Georges Stahl took the Greek name for “burned” and ‘flame, and combined them in this monstrosity. No writer was consulted before the word was put out there: the scientist considered he had made a great discovery and thus of course he should have the prerogative to name it, with a spot of classical flourish.

Just maybe, Stahl should have considered the effect their name might have on posterity.

But the name of the basic building brick of matter: oh, they got that one right. Murray Gell-Mann and George Zweig came up with an ordering system for sub-atomic particles in 1964. Protons, neutrons, pions: they are none of them elementary, because they are made of a smaller thing.

And to name the smaller thing, they used the work of James Joyce.

Finnegan’s Wake, a baffling masterpiece of comedy, casts far and wide for its material. Joyce uses present day postmen and pubs and weaves them with ancient lore and the old Irish Kings.

Amongst all this – on page 373 of my copy – is a thirteen-line poem poking fun at King Mark, the King who is betrayed by his wife in the Tristram legend.

“Three quarks for Muster Mark,

Sure, he hasn’t got much of a bark

And sure, any he has, it’s all beside the mark.”

The scientists cast around and lit upon this perfect word: the quark. Euphonic, musical, succinct. And they used it to name those tiny things which make up sub atomic particles.

If only James Joyce had been around when phlogiston’s unfortunate name was coined.

This is a roundabout response to Sidey’s weekend theme: contrasts


32 thoughts on “The Euphonic Story of Phlogisten and the Quark

  1. Brilliant stuff Kate – a great fan of Jimmy Joyce but have only got halfway through Finnegan’s Wake before complete bamboozlement kicks in. More importantly than the building blocks of the Universe, can Cheltenham Town beat Crewe Alexandra in the Division 2 play offs today? If we lose, many grown men’s Universe will be quarkless!

  2. Just a quick thought about the wood…. don’t burn wood that has old fashioned preservative or paint in an indoor environment because of the risk of toxic fumes. I was recently researching the different wood preservatives with regard to having raised beds in the veg plot, in case of leaching into the soil and this point about burning impregnated wood came to light, so to speak. Another reason to tip instead of keep the wood pile?

  3. I am laughing very hard over here, because MTM had similar wood piles at our old house. They were very precious to him, even though they sat ignored for so long that he had to go through them to look for termites before deciding what was salvageable.

    Though science makes my head explode, I have always loved the word quark. It’s one of those words that’s fun to say.

      1. Nowhere to put them. Never fear, though. He transferred so much crap to his office……I don’t want to know WHAT went there, but I suspect some of that woodpile did.

    1. Informative link, Karen, and one I shall forward immediately to Phil…while we never burn wood inside this sounds like even outside is not such a great idea. Thanks

  4. I share the concern expressed above about burning and possibly releasing toxic “quarks” lurking about in Phil’s woodpile.

    What a contrasting collection of words, Kate ~ especially syzygy. That would be a terrific word when next playing hangman with my nieces and nephews.

  5. To be in the Slough of euphonious Despond, what a quandary, trying with these words that do not roll off the tongue, but rather they roll it up like scrap paper, each one a trap for the unwary, or even the wary.

    Pah! I say, lead them on, I don’t give a quark for my chances to pronounce them.

  6. Dear Kate, yes, if only. I have an auditory learning disability and so pronounce many words incorrectly. I do not have the ability to attack words when I don’t know their pronunciation. And so the many words that you’ve used in this posting are beyond me. I’d never attempt to pronounce them! Peace.

  7. Restoring 3% yearly cost of living increase on social security and pension sounds real delightful. They took that away and upped doctor visit and medicine co-pay 20%. This is not pleasant to the ear or pocket book.

  8. Splendiferous!

    . . . and I’m laughing. My Tom, aka Antler Man, has more piles of wood than Sherwood Forest; long branches set against the garage, piles of logs here and there, and three trunks of a fallen walnut tree he hopes to mill one day. I shudder to think what may be living under all this wood.

  9. 😀 You remind me of my father’s woodpile…his dog, Spice, stands for hours next to it, head cocked., staring. Once Dad took the whole thing apart and found….nothing. Pest control drew a blank. Yet they put it all back again, and lo: there she was, listening intently to the woodpile.
    The mind boggles 😀

  10. I would have to weigh the size and appearance of “the pile” against the likelihood and frequency of bonfires. And having no use for bonfires, the pile would have to go.

  11. I wish I had a better ability to retain some of the details you’ve attached to these wonderful words! I find this a fascinating post and when I listen to our public radio’s “Science Friday” and so many terms and words fly by me and I have trouble remembering them, too, I will definitely consider that they are simply not euphonious…and therefore, difficult for me to absorb! I haven’t used the word euphonious in a sentence up until now! But i do love the word quark, and had no idea of the James Joyce connection. I learn a lot from you! And learn that there’s a lot I don’t know, too. 🙂 Debra

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