Daily Archives: August 29, 2012


One of the YouTube channels I subscribe to is NurdRage, a series of videos showing cool chemical reactions and processes, hosted by someone who calls herself Dr. N. Butyl Lithium (“herself”? the voice sounds male, but it is evidently synthetically lowered, and its quality matches what I’m used to hearing in synthetically lowered female voices – so the host could be male, but I’m guessing female).

Today’s video, demonstrating triboluminescence (wait for a tasting on that word), was announced with an email that used the word supernatant. That immediately precipitated a solution to the question of what I was going to write about today.

“Precipitated a solution?!” the chemistry geeks snort. Of course, the joke is that if you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the precipitate – a precipitate is what falls out of a solution. Things precipitate from a solution. But do you know what’s left, what’s floating above the precipitate, what the precipitate was born out of? The supernatant.

I won’t go so far to say that this word is supernal or supernatural. On the other hand, I won’t spurn it either. It has two obvious parts: the super, which we all recognize as a morpheme, and the natant, which is actually two morphemes (nat and ant). That natant has a nice sort of varying pattern to it – it makes me think of the sort of molecular transposition that chemical reactions often produce. It’s the part at the end, anyway, the part that comes last, sitting there like a tenant ejected by a superintendant. Above it, naturally, is super, which means “above” (so close to supper or purse but just not the same). Put them together and it does look a bit like a comic-book hero…

So we have the start, super, with its soft hiss, lip pop, and rolling liquid, and the end, natant, with its tongue-tip stops and nasals. It seems to settle easily into a pattern rather than to have a falling out. But how would you think of the process of precipitation? Is it something being ejected, wasted, dying out? Or is it something being born? I guess it depends on whether you want to keep the precipitate or the supernatant. In the triboluminescence reaction, it’s the precipitate that is kept. It is born from the solution. O nata lux!

But if you think that this is heading towards natant being related to prenatal and all the other nat words referring to birth, well, you’ve gone after a red herring. This is the other nat – the one that refers to swimming. The supernatant is swimming above the precipitate – or, actually, floating on top of it (natant can also refer to floating). Well, that’s as long as everything goes swimmingly.