Pondering the paucity of volcanic profanity post Pompeii perusal

[Content Warning: This post contains nasty vulgar language.]

My wife and I went to Italy this summer. She wanted to skip Pompeii to spend more time with friends in Umbria. I almost agreed, but at the last moment, I heard Leonard Nimoy’s voice echoing in my head from his narration of an episode of the mystery documentary TV series, In Search of… on the topic of that ancient Roman city buried by the 79 AD eruption of stratovolcano Mount Vesuvius. I saw that episode as a young lad, and from that day, I always wanted to see Pompeii. So, I watched some Andrew Tate clips and decided I wasn’t going to cuck out like some weak beta. I stood up straight with my shoulders back and said: Dear wife, kind wife, if it’s not too much trouble for you, would you mind if we went to Pompeii just for a little bit? But if it’s too much, then we don’t have to bother.

She agreed. :) We went to Pompeii and hiked Mount Vesuvius. We both thoroughly enjoyed it. I’ve been kind of obsessed with it since. It’s not uncommon for it to leave a strong impression on people.

I. The Jaggars

One such impressionable person was 10-year-old Thomas Jaggar Jr., whose father, Southern Ohio Bishop Thomas Jaggar, took his family to Italy in 1885. In 1886 they visited Pompeii and Vesuvius. Junior wrote in his diary about the famous casts of Pompeiians buried in volcanic ash at the moment of the 79 AD eruption, remarking they were “about as strange and interesting as anything I’ve ever experienced.”

One such case in Pompeii

A few weeks later, the only time he used a red pencil to write in his diary, Junior wrote about hiking Vesuvius. As quoted below, text from Junior’s diary is interspersed with prose from John Dvorak, author of the excellent book, The Last Volcano.

At the upper station, the Jaggars stepped out of the car. They were surrounded immediately by dense fog, which made it impossible to see more than a few hundred feet. Several men offered themselves as guides. The Bishop chose three men, two to carry Mrs. Jaggar in a sedan chair [she was very ill at the time] and the other man to lead them to the crater’s edge.

“It was a very hard walk.” Her son wrote of the adventure, “over rough, jagged lumps of warm lava and sulfur, with now and then a bed of sandy ashes in to which we sunk up to the ankles.”

The air was so heavy with sulfur that he held a handkerchief over his mouth to breath. As he and the others neared the crater’s edge, he heard a “dull puffing or priffing sound.” He looked in to the crater. All he could see was dense fog.

One of the guides said he knew a way down. The Bishop and his children followed the guide, stumbling over a treacherous path, avoiding blocks and rockery overhangs. Finally on the bottom more than a hundred feet below the crater rim, they had their first view of red molten lava.

It is hard to convey to someone who has never stood close to where lava is creeping along the ground the strange mixture of senses it invokes. By site it resembles the slow movement of thick molasses, but with the blinding red glare of an iron foundry. By smell, it has the acridity of the worst sulfur mine. The searing heat can raise welts on bare skin, so one must keep in constant motion.

The guide showed the Jaggar children how to approach the lava and use a long wooden stick to retrieved sample and press copper coins in to it. Where the molten stuff was removed, there was always a tremendous hiss, one that Jaggar thought was “like a locomotive on a large scale.”

As they began to climb out of the crater, Jagger stopped and knelt to feel the ground. He stood up quickly, unable to beat the heat for any length of time.

I was expecting something a little more like what the Jaggars saw—like the end of Joe Verses The Volcano. The Jaggar’s 1886 visit was in the middle of two Vesuvius eruptions, one in 1872 and another in 1906. It last erupted in 1944, so this is after 78 years of chill. Not a hint of sulfur in the air, no heat, lava, or fog.

Vesuvius with 78 years of chill

Bishop Thomas Jaggar was notable in his own right for his dedication to Social Gospel work, advocating in favor of hospitals and schools for the poor and in favor of child-labor laws. The Bishop’s accomplishments, however, would later be eclipsed by his son’s to the extent that Junior would nominally have the suffix dropped and be known as Thomas Jaggar the father of volcanology. Again, from The Last Volcano:

[Thomas Jaggar] developed the techniques used the predict volcanic eruptions: the collection of volcanic gases, the recording of earthquakes, and the measurement of a slight rise or fall of the ground surface as molten lava moves inside a volcano. He also learned how to predict tsunamis and was the first person to warn of an approaching wave. He built the first practical amphibious vehicle and used it to explore volcanic islands, his design would later be adapted by the United States military during the Second World War for beach landing craft.

Although he taught at Harvard for a time, Jaggar would leave the university to do most of this research, often living a vagabond monk-like lifestyle. He spent many years in a small house on a cliff overlooking a lava lake in Hawaii. While not rising to the level of Stanislav Petrov, he shares the traits of a person whose contributions remain obscure to most, went largely uncompensated, but nonetheless saved a large number of humans. I’m happy to have the occasion to make him somewhat less obscure.

I don’t believe Thomas Jaggar was related to Mick Jagger, other than by homonym. Although I find some cosmic irony that Thomas studied moving stone, and Mick is in The Rolling Stones. There’s a dad joke in there somewhere.

Vesuvius from Pompeii, about 5.6 miles away.

II. Maledictology ∩ Volcanology = ∅ ???

I left Pompeii pondering two questions. The first was linguistic.

I remembered, at least once, listening to another famous Harvard alumni, Steven Pinker, lecture on the linguistic categories of swearwords (maledicta, if you want to sound like a nerd) and the cognitive neuroscience of swearing. If it wasn’t this 2008 lecture, it was a lot like it. Swearwords involuntarily activate the parts of the brain associated with negative emotion, so they can be used as a “weapon” to make people in earshot uncomfortable. He outlines five cross-cultural categories of swearwords: (1) The supernatural, evoking awe and fear; (2) body effluvia and organs, evoking disgust; (3) disease, death, and infirmity, evoking dread; (4) sexuality, evoking revulsion and depravity; (5) words you only say in 2022 if you want to end your career, evoking hatred and contempt. Are you nostalgic for the 2008 PowerPoint aesthetic?

Section five was intentionally omitted.

The supernatural: awe and fear

Wikipedia says there are at least twelve instances of deities associated with volcanoes. Not all of them are lucky enough to have easily findable images with licensing permitting republishing, but these four were.

Pele, Konohanasakuya-hime, Guayota and Surtr

In Hawaiian religion, Pele is the goddess of volcanoes and the creator of the Hawaiian islands. In Japanese mythology, Konohanasakuya-hime is the goddess of Mount Fuji and all volcanoes. In Guanche mythology (of Tenerife island), Guayota lived inside the Teide volcano, one of the gateways to the underworld. Surtr is from Old Norse mythology and is theorized to be a volcano demon inspired by Icelandic eruptions.

These are gods, so I suppose I should elaborate a bit.

As put on the back cover of Herb Kawainui Kane’s 1996 book on Pele, Pele:

...Pele lives in Hawaiian hearts and minds as the supreme personification of volcanic majesty and power. Within the Hawaiian cosmos all natural forces are regarded as life forces, related to human life. Possessing the power to create new land, Pele also has a volcanic personality—an impetuous, lusty nature, jealous, unpredictable, capable of sudden fury and great violence. Yet she can also be gentle, loving, and as serene as her forests of ferns and flowering trees.

As Konohanasakuya-hime describes herself in a play:

I am called Konohanasakuya-hime, the beginning of the world and the origin of the human body. When the body of Konohasaku-o opens, the female’s body receives this flower and likewise opens. After she has taken it into her body she gives birth. I begin from the body that opens.

Surtr was the fiery guy in the Marvel film Thor: Ragnarok. I didn’t put that together until just now. More academically he was described as:

Surtr (the Black One), a fire giant from Old Norse mythology, is often depicted with the flaming sword with which he was believed to usher in the downfall of the Old Norse gods in a cataclysmic event known as Ragnarök

About every year I meet a new dog owner who thinks Loki is a terribly cute and clever name for their puppy. As I’m a very, very old man, I offer this as proof that it’s literally a basic bitch name. Do you want some real cultural cache? Name your puppy Guayota and you have a durable more-cultured-than-thou ice breaker. Did you know Guanche mythology was a thing prior to this post? Don’t lie. Neither will your friends and neighbors. Just be aware that Guayota is the bad guy of the Guanche deities, the primary adversary of the creator deity, Achamán. It will be a little like naming your dog Satan, but if you ask me the puppy-Satan irony makes it better.

Disease, death, and infirmity: dread

St. Pierre, founded by French settlers in 1635, was the commercial center of Martinique island in the Lesser Antilles. Prior to May 8th, 1902, it was a thriving port city of some 30,000 people and was known as the Paris of the Caribbean. After May 8th, 1902, one photographer labeled it The City of Death. This photograph is from an impressive Flickr album, the 1902 Mt Pelee Disaster, assembled by the Caribbean Photo Archive.

The City of Death, St. Pierre. (I believe this was intended to be viewed with a Holmes-type stereoscope.)

The eruption of stratovolcano Mount Pelee in 1902 killed all of the inhabitants of the city in the path of the pyroclastic surge, sparring only two. A pyroclastic surge is a very hot and fast-moving cloud of volcanic material that descends following an eruption, it simultaneously cooks and sandblasts everything in its path. One survivor, Ludger Sylbaris, committed an assault the night before the eruption and was imprisoned in an ammunition magazine that was repurposed as a jail cell. He was found burned, but alive, four days after the eruption. The “jail cell” is still standing.

Sylbaris’ jail cell. Photo credit Larry Syverson CC BY-SA 2.0

This is maybe more useful than it would seem at first glance as it’s evidence of the minimum amount of insulation required to survive a Volcanic Eruption Index level 4 (VEI-4) event (aka a Peléan event because Mount Pelee set the standard here). I wondered if prepper types like Josh Centers were thinking about volcanoes. He’s way ahead of me with a very detailed analysis of the threat volcanoes pose to water supplies and how to filter/​avoid water contaminated with volcanic ash.

The other survivor, Léon Compère-Léandre, was a shoemaker with a house on the edge of the pyroclastic surge generated by the May 8th eruption. His story is as described in Unearthing Atlantis.

Léon Compère-Léandre, who had survived the blast while napping in a wood cellar, was found running along Le Trace [a trail northeast of St. Pierre, running between Fort-de-France and Morne Rouge], away from the dead city. Rescuers took him to the town of Fort-de-France, where hospital workers promptly labeled him a madman. Apparently, the diagnosis did not disqualify him from appointment to Martinique’s police force, for two days later he was given a gun and sent back to St. Pierre to guard against looters. On May 20, 1902 after barely more than a week of service, he abandoned his post and began walking in the direction of Fort-de-France. Behind him he heard “a great awhump!” When he looked back, he saw another death cloud [pyroclastic surge] descending upon the city, washing away whatever had been spared by the May 8 eruption. Three months later, on the morning of August 20, Mount Pelee exploded again, this time sending a cloud crashing and burning through the village of Morne Rouge where Léon had just taken up residence. He emerged as one of its few survivors, yet continued to live on the island of Martinique until his death from a fall in 1936 (he slipped in a bathtub and broke his neck).

Relative to the other 1902 St. Pierre stories, these are the only “happy” ones. Other anecdotes and photos are more gruesome and not worth belaboring here. If you want nightmare fuel, follow that link to Unearthing Atlantis and read the paragraph immediately above the one about Léon detailing the fate of geologist Gaston Landes. The story of the SS Roddham, the only ship in St. Pierre’s harbor that managed to escape, makes the tragedy real from the point of view of people witnessing it at some distance—but is no less nightmarish.

Body effluvia and organs: disgust

Many years ago, thanks to a YouTuber coincidentally also named Tom, I learned about the abject. As Tom, quoting literary critic and psychoanalyst Julia Kristeva, tells us:

The abject refers to the human reaction (horror, vomit) to a threatened breakdown in meaning caused by the loss of the distinction between subject and object or between self and other. The primary example for what causes such a reaction is the corpse (which traumatically reminds us of our own materiality); however, other items can elicit the same reaction: the open wound, shit, sewage, even the skin that forms on the surface of warm milk.

While Pinker points out that bodily effluvia and organs represent vectors for disease, Tom crucially adds that they also represent liminal spaces—references to breaks in boundaries.

What happens when you’re in between two places? Where are you? What does it mean to be in transition? People have a tendency to put things into categories and when things start to break down boundaries we get uncomfortable… Look at English swear words.

Asshole: represents the boundary where waste leaves the body.

Fuck: is the verb representing the sexual penetration of a boundary.

Cock or dick [or rod or Johnson]: is the place where urine and semen leave the male body.

Cunt: is a place where urine leaves the female body and where she has the potential to be sexually penetrated.

Italics are mine (‘rod’ and ‘Johnson’ are courtesy of Maude Lebowski).

So why am I mentioning this?

Volcanoes are buttholes.

Volcanoes have abject and liminal qualities—they’re the point at which the boundary between the surface of the Earth and its liquid core breaks down. But, importantly, without adaptive liminal spaces, things living on the other sides of them would turn to mush.

Earth’s magnetic field is created by the solidification of the planet’s liquid core, which helps protect us from harmful space energy via creating a magnetosphere. As humans, we also create solids (biosolids) in our cores from liquids or substances we liquify (before photographing them for Instagram) to create energy and sustain life.

Like the activity of human buttholes, active volcanoes are also essential to sustaining life but at a planetary level. Mars doesn’t have any active buttholes volcanoes because its liquid core shut down, and that’s probably why it has a negligible magnetosphere, a negligible atmosphere, and negligible life (at best).

The concept for an artificial Martian Magnetosphere at Mars L1. Here, the white dot is our satellite equipped with the technology to produce a powerful magnetic field. Credit: NASA/​Jim Green. HT: Brandon Weigel.

One option for giving Mars a magnetosphere would be to place a powerful magnet between it and the Sun, protecting it from solar winds and creating a sheath-like liminal space.

In a quasi-archetypal way, life at many scales correlates with chthonic processes where things stir and mix deep inside a permeable layer, opening or erupting at appropriate intervals.

As mentioned elsewhere, volcanoes also smell strongly of sulfur. Do you know what else smells like sulfur? Farts. Farts smell because they contain sulfur gases (hydrogen sulfide, methanethiol, and dimethyl sulfide)and a mix of others (hydrogen, nitrogen, and methane). Volcanoes smell because they contain sulfur gases (sulfur dioxide and hydrogen sulfide) and a mix of others (water vapor, carbon dioxide, and hydrogen halides).

In archetypal, functional, and gustatory ways, volcanoes are buttholes.

So, why no volcanic profanity in any language?

Maybe my Google-fu game is getting weak. Credibly, volcanoes fit two categories of cross-cultural swearwords. If you count the Freudian geological sense (buttholes), three. Sure, there are plenty of profane words related to hellfire and damnation, but it really seems like there should be something specifically volcanic.

There’s no shortage of people writing about profanity in the popular and academic press. There’s The Oxford Handbook of Taboo Words and Language; How to Swear Around the World; Bad Words: And What They Say about Us; Filthy English: The How, Why, When and What of Everyday Swearing; Holy Sh*t: A Brief History of Swearing; The Compleat Motherfucker: A History of the Mother of All Dirty Words; and Odd Job Man: Some Confessions of a Slang Lexicographer; just to name the first few I found. Searching those I didn’t find anything about volcanoes.

Wiktionary is cool because it has English definitions of words in other languages and is easy to search. I found some that were close but no cigar.

  • Uitbarsten is Dutch and means bursting out or erupting (emotionally, or like a volcano).

  • Purkaus is like uitbarsten, but Finnish.

  • Pështymë is Albanian and means saliva, spit, vomit, eruption (from a volcano, etc.)

  • Provala is Serbo-Croatian and means burglary, burst (of a cloud, volcano, emotions), or penetration (by an invading army).

  • Bunganga is Tagalog and can mean crater (like a volcano) or can also be used in a derogatory sense for mouth (cover your bunganga when you cough).

  • Ignivomous is archaic English which means throwing out fire, as a volcano does.

Luu to the rescue

Chi Luu writes a fascinating blog, Lingua Obscura, for JSTOR Daily. Luu is a computational linguist and has degrees in Theoretical Linguistics and Literature. She wrote the article “All About That Taboo: When Good Words Go Bad.”

In Robert Withington’s 1934 paper Children of Linguistic Fashion, Withington states “it was Swift who called oaths ‘the children of fashion’ […] it is not only interesting but profitable to note that words, objectionable in one time or place, are innocent in another; to observe rehabilitation or degeneration; to see (what is common in Fashion’s domain) how small a part logic plays in determining connotations.” For example in Urdu and Hindi, the word for owl “ullu“, a bird commonly revered as a symbol of wisdom for English speakers, attains the level of a swear word in the phrase “ullu ka patha” or “son of an owl“, meaning a stupid fool. This may seem odd at first to a non-Urdu or non-Hindi speaker but is not so different when you consider the phrase “son of a bitch” in English, since bitch after all merely denotes a canine of the female persuasion....

So as we can see, taboo words arise out of a particular moral and social context for a speech community, not necessarily based on any real or universal ‘logic’, although for most languages taboo speech is often semantically limited to certain areas.

Then we can think of the categories Pinker presented as something like necessary but not sufficient conditions. Someone or something would have to make usage of a putative volcanic swearword trendy.

The next @!#?꩜!

It makes me think about fashion trend forecasters—like Faith Popcorn or people at WGSN. What will be the next swearword? Could they tell us? Can prediction markets be modified to facilitate fashion forecasting? Incidentally, someone keen on prediction markets and with some free time may be interested in this claim Ms. Popcorn makes.

Faith garnered a documented accuracy rate of over 95% in forecasting everything from technology to nutrition to personal care.
ullu ka patha?

I nominate ‘bunganga’ as it seems to best fit the kiki/​bouba effect. It feels like bunghole-fire-mouth.

III. Tectonic seasteading (munchkin idea)

[A nod to Dennis Kucinich’s tectonic weapons, but more accurately ‘volcanic seasteading’]

Mark Twain was a travelin’ man. In 1866 he went to the Hawaiian islands (and Pompeii in 1869), while he was there he stayed at the famous Volcano House hotel. He wrote about Kilauea erupting for the Sacramento-based Daily Union. There’s a plaque at Kilauea with a quote from the Daily Union article.

The smell of sulfur is strong, but not unpleasant to a sinner. Photo Credit MKC-T—educational fair use.

So it’s a little weird that Twain also said: “Buy land, they’re not making it anymore.”

Volcanoes are totally still making land. In 1914 the eruption of stratovolcano Sakurajima created a land bridge from the island Sakurajima to the rest of Japan, turning Sakurajima island into the Sakurajima peninsula. In a human lifespan, there are occasions of volcanoes erupting and creating standalone islands that can be stable for several years, maybe indefinitely.

Yes, there are some islands like Ferdinandea and Sabrinathat exist for several months—just long enough to begin a multinational territorial dispute—and then dissolve back into the sea.

I’m not talking about them, let me draw your attention to islands like these, shown as very small dots next to the nearest recognizable landmasses (Iceland, Japan, and Fiji).

Surtsey, Nishinoshima, Fukutoku-Okanoba (Volcano Islands) and Hunga Tonga–Hunga Haʻapai

Surtsey, named after the aforementioned deity, was born from an eruption in 1963. It’s currently about 0.50 sq mi and is gradually eroding, expected to disappear sometime around 2100. Nishinoshima has been growing from progressive eruptions since 1974 and is now 1.6 sq mi. The Volcano Islands near Fukutoku-Okanoba are three to five individual islands depending on when you look and how you define them. They may or may not include Nishinoshima, and there may or may not be an island above the Fukutoku-Okanoba volcano (I think there was as of August 2021).

After a series of eruptions from 2009 to 2015, Hunga Tonga–Hunga Haʻapai grew to about 0.35 sq mi. There was an awful lot of excitement about the creation of Hunga Tonga–Hunga Haʻapai in 2015. Scientists at NASA thought it could give us insights into Martian geography. They were also surprised the erosion of the island decreased logarithmically, halting almost completely after about six months.

Then about eight months ago, Hunga Tonga–Hunga Haʻapai island was almost completely obliterated in the largest eruption of the 21st century. That must have been a bummer for researchers. Miraculously there were only five fatalities, largely because this volcano is in the middle of the ocean far from densely populated areas.

With “non-tectonic seasteading” you make a big floating apparatus, take it out to the middle of the ocean, and declare it to be a startup accelerator, charter city, or independent nation. From there on out, it’s a utopian paradise of vertical farming, seaweed, and libertarianism.

on-tectonic seasteading: 1000 of the world’s top entrepreneurs precariously floating in the ocean. Photo credit: Max Marty—Blueseed CC BY-SA 2.0

With tectonic seasteading, you no longer have to worry about the precarity of living on a massive pool noodle in the middle of the ocean. Instead, for example, you worry about the precarity of tapping into a mantle plume near a seamount to create a Kileua-like volcano that, after breaching the surface, has gentle effusive eruptions (that spread out like a film, not spewing a lot of volcanic ash miles into the air) that slowly but surely creates an island for you and your friends. The island-creating part will be difficult, but that’s just an engineering problem. When it’s established, you use the remaining geothermal energy to mine DogeCoin and power your new economy.

There’s a good chance that there are people reading this that actually understand geology and earth science who are going to tell me this is impossible. The probability of those people being right (or at least more right than me) is well over 90%. So maybe you should ignore the next few paragraphs (if you’re a wuss).

Here’s my back-of-the-envelope “calculation.” According to a YouTube video, magma isn’t actually that hot; it only gets to about 1300℃. Wikipedia says it’s more than 1600℃. If I Google for the alloy with the highest melting point, I get tantalum hafnium carbide, which melts at 3990℃. I know nothing about this material or working with it, but let’s assume that we could use it or something else with a comparable melting point to build a drilling rig like the Deepwater Horizon (which was able to drill to a depth of 10,638 meters), but that could go about 5x or 10x deeper and hit a mantle plume of our choosing.

Schematic diagram showing the physical processes within the Earth’s upper mantle that lead to the generation of magma. A to D are different plate tectonic settings. The graphs show the geotherm (temperature curve inside the Earth, red) and the solidus (temperature where rock starts to melt, green). When the two curves cross each other, magma is generated by partial melting. From LibreTexts.

Recently, MIT has helpfully identified the optimal combination of plate tectonics and magma plumes to create long-lasting volcanic islands. Islands that live a long time are on slow-moving plates and have large underlying magma plumes, which makes sense.

No really

A potential upside of an effort like this is that in the process we may develop technology to give us the ability to prevent massive volcanic catastrophes. Forget for a moment about the thousands of people that could die from the proximate impacts of an eruption. Let’s think about a scenario like 1816, also known as The Year Without a Summer, likely due to a volcanic winter caused by the 1815 eruption of Mount Tambora. Remember how Pelee was a VEI-4 eruption? Did I mention that’s a logarithmic scale? The 2022 Hunga Tonga–Hunga Ha’apai was a VEI-5. The 1815 eruption of Mount Tambora was a VEI-7.

Does it bother anyone else that at any given time part of the Earth can explode and make it so we can’t grow food and it poisons our water? Oh, and that there’s not a lot we can do about it other than stockpile food, filters and try to give people enough notice to get out of the way of the eruption? As cool as solar energy is, it depends on the Sun shining on the Earth, and a volcanic eruption could significantly diminish this.

Nudge this volcanic space

It looks like it bothers volcanologist Mike Cassidy and Lara Mani on the Effective Altruism Forum. They’ve written two excellent posts that, while suspiciously lacking in butthole analogies, appropriately contextualize the existential risk volcanic activity poses to humanity.

The most recent is on lessons we can learn from the 2022 Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha’apai eruption. It’s something of an addendum to a magnum opus they composed in October of 2021, On the assessment of volcanic eruptions as global catastrophic or existential risks. As they conclude:

Some may well ask, apart from preparing for the hazards themselves, is there anything we can do to interfere with them to lessen their impact somehow? It’s topic that that has been received some attention from other disciplines (Dekenberger and Blair, 2018, Wilcox et al., 2015), but it has largely ignored by volcanologists, however we think that this may all change in the next few decades due to recent scientific developments which may drill into volcanoes to tap their fluids rich in ‘critical metals’ (e.g Copper and Lithium) that are needed for green technologies, as well as so called ‘supercritical’ geothermal energy. Some of this is a long way off yet, but there’s lots that may change in the long-term future of volcanoes, so watch this (volcanic) space.

The thing that may save us are economic incentives to develop technology to safely drill into volcanoes. Or a group of crazy eccentric wealthy entrepreneurs that want to create an island.

Marc Andressen, if you’re reading this, cut me a check and I’ll make you New Atherton.