loess

What wind blew this word in? Actually, it will have been brought by a mail carrier, because if you’ve ever seen it it’s probably been in the pages of National Geographic. But, while NG may be the world’s best magazine, it doesn’t always give pronunciation guides. So you’re stuck trying to decide whether to play fast and loess, go with the loess common denominator, or something else more or loess, as long as it doesn’t leave you speechloess. Well, all these pronunciations are current – though the two-syllable version (“low S”) seems most preferred – so take your pick.

Actually, you won’t need a pick; loess isn’t really all that hard to dig into. A shovel will do. It’s just wind-deposited sediment, after all, and a fair amount of it. That’s why Germans along the Rhine valley called it “loose” – in their dialect of German, löß, which can also be spelled loess. Take a walk on it and you will find some on your soles. And yet you will see many loess cliffs: the grains making it up are angular and can stand in steep banks for a long time, and caves can be dug in it – in some parts of China, that’s what people do for residences (yes, even still). So it can be firm enough – but it’s still subject to considerable loss by erosion, especially when subject to inadvisable agricultural practices.

The brevity of the word might make it seem a bit like a gust of wind, but the liquid l starting it lacks the punch and puff and instead flows like water and stands before the eye like a cliff. The hissing s‘s at the end can be suggestive of wind or stream, and to look at them they could call to mind either.

What words are you likely to find near loess? The two most common are plateau and China, because there’s a large area of China that is called – because it is – the Loess Plateau. There are other places that have plateaux of loess, too; in Hungary, there are loess reefs (standing above the plain, not below water), and in Iowa and Nebraska, there are notable loess hills. You will also find loess hills in Kansas, a particularly apposite deposit given that all they are is dust in the wind.

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