Daniel Hertzberg
Princeton Portrait

Princeton sits on the coastal plain of New Jersey, a thick layer of sediments that overlays deeper layers of sedimentary and metamorphic rocks: gneiss, shale, silicate, slate. The coastal plain used to be a mountain range that eroded on both sides, leaving behind the Palisades mountains and rich sedimentary soils mingling with glacial soils and tills. The soils are responsible for the lovely agricultural areas around Princeton, the oak-and-maple forests and grassy farmlands that hold the town in a leafy embrace. Geology is destiny. 

In 1935, Clara Mabel Rice, a secretary in the University’s Department of Geology, completed a dictionary of geological terms, the first such dictionary to be published. The book, which was published the same year, contained some 15,000 terms, the product of 15 years of toil. (PAW was unable to find an image of Rice.)

Rice asked Professor Gilbert Van Ingen where she might find a dictionary of geological terms. “There ain’t no such animal,” he replied.

The project began in 1920, when Rice asked Professor Gilbert Van Ingen where she might find a dictionary of geological terms. “There ain’t no such animal,” he replied. She promptly undertook to create one, canvassing colleagues and students for words, jotting them on index cards, hunting down meanings, and classifying the notes into branches of knowledge such as economic geology, evolution, general geology, glacial geology, paleontology (vertebrate and invertebrate), petrology, physiography, mineralogy, stratigraphy, and structural geology. She checked the words and definitions with experts; when experts disagreed, she included every variant. Her immense card index became the wonder of Guyot Hall, growing at an average rate of 1,000 words a year. 

Today’s readers of C.M. Rice’s Dictionary of Geological Terms may note how many terms are outdated, making the book a memory bank of an earlier era in geology. Such terms include dander (slag); dam shale (oil shale); dead ground (unproductive rock in a mine); lob of gold (a small accumulation of gold); loup (a fault); lie (for a mine to be idle); lizard stone (speckled green-black rock); Lydian stone (jasper); Maggie blaes (low-quality ironstone); mountain milk (CaCO3, the basis of limestone); mountain butter (alunogen); mountain soap (waxy halloysite); rhums (bituminous shale); wandering coal (a meandering coal seam); whin (hard rock); and whin dike (a dike made of igneous rock). 

Rice died in 1961 while spending her retirement with her sisters. Her card index was lost somewhere over the years. So were many of the words, which, missing now from Guyot Hall, abide in her dictionary as a lost way of talking about the earth sciences: playful, lyrical, as human in scale as milk or butter or soap. The lexicographical summit of her book eroded as old words gave way to new words embodying new models, new fields, new perspectives. Mountains rise and fall in universities as in nature — though their buried influence often helps new growth to bloom.