If you thought sharknado was horrifying, wait until you see fatberg.

Seriously, are you eating right now? Because don’t even keep going here until you’ve digested and your stomach is settled and, in fact, basically empty again. If you’re about to eat, choose one or the other – read this or eat – but assume that the two are incompatible.

I think you can sort out the basic morphology of this word. It’s a portmanteau word, a blend of fat and iceberg. That makes it a new formation from well-aged Germanic parts. The berg part – borrowed in from Dutch, probably, but cognate with English barrow – means ‘mountain’, but because we see it in iceberg we think of it as more like ‘enormous floating white mass’. So obviously a fatberg is an enormous mass of white fat. Floating, though? Where?



Actually not so much floating as clinging to the sides, generally. It’s very much like those illustrations of plaque in your arteries in cases of coronary artery disease – the arteries get blocked, which can cause a heart attack. Except here the arteries are sewers. And when they get blocked, well… Do I need to tell you? No? Ah, good.

So why is there all this fat down in the sewers? Because people put it down the drain and it congeals. Don’t pretend you’ve never done this. If you cook, you pretty surely have – perhaps when cleaning the fat off a pan after frying some burgers. But what makes it congeal really badly is wet wipes: those towel-like things that don’t quickly disintegrate like toilet paper does. Fat gloms onto them and they come together to make big masses that float and adhere and block pipes. Masses that can take days to clear.

How big do these fatbergs become?

Well, now, this is what makes fatberg the word of the day for today. It’s in the news: there’s one in the London sewer that’s 15 tonnes (16.5 tons for you people who still think in pounds).


Oh, but you ain’t seen nothin’ yet. There’s a video with the story. Actually, there are multiple stories on it – this really is as big as sharknado, but it’s real, and it’s soooooo much more disgusting. Here’s the AP story, as seen in Canada’s National Post: “How a monster ‘fatberg’ clogged a London sewer — ‘We’ve never seen a single lump of lard this big’.” And here’s an up-close-and-personal in New Statesman: “I’ve Seen Fatbergs You People Wouldn’t Believe.” And one more little slap for you because you know you’re part of the problem, from The Week: “Why no city is safe from the fatberg.”

Had enough? Well, how do you like the word? Is it yummy? The fat part is actually a fairly crisp word for what it denotes – I find it has more of the hiss and splat of hot fat in a pan. It also reminds me of Chow Yun-Fat and various other Cantonese names (plus the New Year greeting often rendered as “gong hee fat choy”). It’s a fairly lean word, but it’s so primary we generally don’t stop to think of that.

The berg is a fatter-seeming bit though only slightly longer; its stops are voiced and it has that liquid in the middle (actually for most North Americans it’s a sustained [ɹ] with no vowel; for many or most other Anglophones it’s a sustained vowel with no actual [r] or [ɹ]).

The seven letters of the two bits congealed together have three ascenders and one descender; the word moves from soft to crisp to, frankly, a bit blobby. Sort of like the course of that fat you heated in your frying pan and then dumped down the drain. Next time you’ll pour it into an empty milk carton and put it in the garbage, right? Oh, and don’t use wet wipes. Thanks.

3 responses to “fatberg

  1. I will never again pass a “Fatburger” joint without a shudder!

  2. Excellent! I saw the article before I saw your post and was equally astounded. The Sesquiotica discussion, though, makes it almost delicious!

  3. Great post.
    CBC radio had a detailed report on the 6 o’clock news, just in time for dinner. 😀
    fatberg = Mr. Gutman (Maltese Falcon) + Wo Fat (Hawaii Five-O)

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