Daily Archives: October 18, 2010

katabatic

Oh, this word looks and sounds like being pelted with ice cubes. That opening k is hard, hard… and the word ends with a /k/ as well, softened only in the mind by being written as c. You can hear the chattering teeth and shivering, kkkkkkkkk… And the /t/ and /t/, sounding like icicles snapping and written as two crosses from a graveyard t and t. The only voiced consonant is a stop /b/, not really voiced – just with a minimal voice offset and onset time (especially in English; some other languages do maintain a bit of voice during voiced stops, but in English normally not, unless of course we reduce them to flaps or taps).

The real kicker is what you see this word with: its common collocation is katabatic winds. Ohhh, now, does that not seem chaotic, like something hurled down from a nunatak by an evil tuurngaq – a howling wind, strong and cold enough to send an army of ten thousand into retreat.

But does katabatic sound like a word for a wind to you? It’s so hard-edged, and winds, as ill as they may be, generally buffet but do not cut. Yet I am put in mind of the song “Vihma” by the Finnish group Värttinä,* about being caught in a furious storm, which does not howl but chatters rapidly: “Upa-maita ulkkumasta taromaita tallomasta”; “Vihma silmäni virutti lumi kulmani kulutti”…

So is katabatic a Finnish word? No. Is it an Inuktitut word, like nunatak and tuurngaq? No. This word does not come from a cold country. Here’s a hint: one unusual thing about this word is that the kata is not spelled cata, as it normally is in English: catastrophe, cataplexy, catatonic… Yes, that kata is the Greek kata (κατα) meaning “downward”, coming this time not by way of Latin (which is the reson for those c’s) but straight into English about a century ago. And the batic? It is from batos (βατος), “going”. Katabatic thus means “going down”; its Greek source can also mean “retreating”, and its sibling katabasis or catabasis “retreat” has a particular historical reference: the retreat of the army of ten thousand Greeks described in Xenophon’s Anabasis.

So while the batic is the same one as in acrobatic, it has nothing to do with batik – with katabatic winds, you will not dye a fabric, though you might die a chilly death. In truth, though, you probably won’t. Most katabatic winds aren’t that strong, though some of them do reach hurricane force. It depends on the environment. Many are cold, although California’s Santa Ana winds often get warmed up by the time they hit bottom, for instance. The one thing they all have in common is just this: they are caused by heavy cold air being pulled down a slope by gravity.

Yes, katabatic winds are the air equivalent of a landslide or avalanche, except that they are not so abruptly triggered; air does not build up the kind of friction holding it back that snow or earth does (still, some katabatic winds are sudden, notably the williwaw, which has an ironically unabrupt name). But if you’re in, say, Antarctica or Greenland, with the air getting awfully cold high up on those ice sheets (and nunataks), it is quite heavy and has a long way to slide: at Antarctic McMurdo it batters and desiccates, and the piteraq of Kalaallit Nunaat can rack with a wicked and quick attack as it did to the town of Tasiilaq.

*By the way, in Värttinä the stress is on the first syllable and the ä’s are pronounced like the a in hat.