Chicxulub

OK, just on the face of it, this word looks to me like a name either for something really dark and evil, or for a nightclub. Or both.

I mean, it could be a nightclub. It’s C…lub, and it starts with chic, too. And of course that x is kinda trendy. But it could also be something nasty. It seems somewhat unnatural to the anglophone eye to end a word with ub, just for starts (though it would look quite unexceptional to speakers of some other languages – Estonian comes to mind). It kinda makes me think of Shelob, the nasty big spider from Lord of the Rings, or Chthulhu, H.P. Lovecraft’s massive, ugly, squamous embodiment of pure evil, or maybe Anton Chigurh, the creepy guy in No Country for Old Men who kills people remorselessly whenever it seems at all useful to do so. And the x that may seem trendy may also be the crossing-out of something or someone.

The x may also be a point of rearrangement and transformation. Look at the letter shapes: with a little addition to each letter – maybe just a bit of dust – the i becomes the l, the h becomes the b, the two c‘s turn 90 degrees and become the two u‘s, and the outer two letters change places. X is where it changes – x marks the spot.

And where in the world is this x? If I tell you it’s pronounced like English “sh”, will that help you guess? (The word is pronounced like “chick shoe lube,” which sounds like something you could get at an especially dodgy, dark nightclub.) One country where x often spells a “sh” sound is Mexico, and Chicxulub is a little town on the coast of the Yucatán Peninsula. You can go on vacation there. Your vacation may not be enhanced by learning that the name comes from Mayan chic “flea/tick” (or “pin/nail/fix in place”) and xulub “devil/demon/horns” (see? I told it you it looked evil). But it might be enhanced by learning what Chicxulub is really most famous for: massive destruction and mass extinction.

About 65 million years ago, a meteor 10–15 kilometres wide slammed into Earth at a speed of 20 km/second (20 times the speed of a bullet; Superman take note), producing an explosive force on impact equivalent to 100 million megatons of TNT, about 5 billion times as much as the nuclear bomb dropped on Nagasaki. (Yes, you read that right.) It produced a crater 180 km in diameter, which in turn is ringed by a fault about 240 km in diameter (like the small c and the big C). It hit just where the town of Chicxulub now is.

This crater is not the Gulf of Mexico, which is much larger – in fact, the crater area now includes both land and sea and is not evident on a map. It was 65 million years ago, eh! But it sent up a huge cloud of pulverized material that spread over the whole earth and caused drastic climate change – a global winter that pretty much finished off the dinosaurs and a number of other species.

Now, of course, as with everything prehistorical, there is debate over this. Not all scientists are convinced that the extinctions were due to the Chicxulub strike, and some think there were multiple strikes. But an international panel of 41 experts has recently finished reviewing 20 years of accumulated research and evidence and has issued a consensus statement, published in Science (“The Chicxulub Asteroid Impact and Mass Extinction at the Cretaceous-Paleogene Boundary,” March 2010, pp. 1214–1218), that this is in fact what happened.

Talk about a reset button. The whole world was rearranged, transformed, turned on its side. This is like a Judgement Day, a Ragnarök, a Götterdämmerung. It’s wayyy worse than Chthulhu.

Well, it is if you’re there at the time. But without it, we might not have come to have nightclubs, Tolkien, Lovecraft, the Coen brothers, these word tasting notes… The mass extinction of dinosaurs as a result of it rather cleared the way for the dominance of humans.

5 responses to “Chicxulub

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