The Not Quite Adventures of a Professional Archaeologist and Aspiring Curmudgeon

Friday, February 18, 2011

Love Stones and Slang

It is my impression that every profession, or at least each type of profession, has a certain type of slang that goes with it. This slang can tell you something about the individuals in the profession, or about the leaders (perceived or real) of that profession.

For example, when I worked in the tech industry one would typically hear terms such as "paradigm" horribly mis-used (I once heard somebody talk about information being "stored in a paradigm of databases"), post-project meetings were described as "post-mortems", and we would often hear about how "pro-active" employees "own their jobs." The reason for some of this seemed clear: this was a field where intelligence was prized as was the ability to speak concisely and it was a field where one wanted, quite frankly, to look cool*. Using terms such as "paradigm" seemed to show intelligence, while talking about how someone "owned their job" was seen as wrapping a large, complex concept into a few words. Of course, most people mis-used the "smart terms", the "concision" words usually became essentially empty and meaningless buzz words, and the one's intended to sound cool...well, I always had a hard time taking anyone who used them seriously at all.

Importantly, nobody ever taught you these terms, you learned them by being in the business culture and by seeing how they were used.

When I entered professional archaeology, I learned a new set of terms, and like the ones from business, these reflected the culture of my new profession. Now, understand one thing, I am not discussing professional jargon here, where terms are developed to label specific things or phenomena and have specific technical meanings. I am talking about terms that you won't read in journals, or hear in professional presentations, but which every archaeologist knows before they've gotten too far along. As noted, they tend to reflect how archaeologists, especially field archaeologist, view themselves, and as such they tend to be goofy and crude in measure, and always a bit earthy.

One of the best known of these (and a rare one that you might actually see in a published paper) is krotovina. A krotovina is a rodent burrow that has been filled in with soil from above. "Why not just say 'filled-in rodent burrow'?" you ask, and, in truth, I have no idea why not. Actually, in my reports, I do write "rodent burrow", but krotovina shows up frequently in the archaeological literature. What is the origin of this one? Well, it comes from soil science where it is more of a technical term. I have been told that it comes from two Russian words meaning "rodent" (kroto) and "mine" (vina), though every source I have been able to find indicates that it actually translates into "molehill." I think that archaeologists use it because we can't resist grabbing and bastardizing terms from other fields of study. It's an affliction...we can't help ourselves.

Another term that I rather like is "love stone", which means "a fucking rock" (also called A.F.R. for "another fucking rock"**). You usually hear this term come up in two contexts, the first (and most common) is when someone hands a rock to an archaeologist and asks "what is this?" The answer: "It's a love stone." Which usually inspires the asker, now intrigued, to ask what, exactly, a love stone is, and they are answered with "a fucking rock!" The other occurs when two or more archaeologists are working in the field, and one takes a closer look at something only to dismiss it, announcing to the others that it's "just a love stone."

Artifacts, as well as non-artifacts, come in for abuse too. There is a type of crude ceramic found in the Great Basin and parts of eastern California which is usually referred to in the field as "shitware." And this refers to a specific subset of pottery - if someone in the field or lab tells you that they have found "shitware", then you know exactly what they are looking at.

I could spend volumes providing other examples, but I think these suffice. I am just fascinated by the contrast between the nature of archaeology slang vs. business slang.

*Bear in mind when reading this that I was on the business side of the tech industry. The technical side was a different story altogether, and I have to say that I think the engineers had a hell of a lot more fun than us "suits" did.

**Which is a play on words of sorts. A common artifact type is F.A.R. or "fire affected rock" which is found in hearths and sub-surface ovens.


Khodok said...

I don't think I really encountered "krotovina" in archaeological use until I came to CA. The crew chief asked me during break if I was getting much "krote". I thought he was asking me about my personal life.

And yes, it does mean "molehill," literally mole (krot) barn (ovina). "Rodent mine" would be "grizunov shakhta", which doesn't roll off the tongue (remember to cough on the "kh").

Anthroslug said...

Ahhh, then it's a west-coast thing, eh? Thanks for the confirmation on "molehill".