Garner’s Usage Tip of the Day: stalactite; stalagmite.

stalactite; stalagmite.

They're both deposits of calcium carbonate found in caves and caverns. The difference is that a "stalactite" hangs from the ceiling, while a "stalagmite" rises from the floor. Writers sometimes fall into error by using "stalagmite" for "stalactite" — e.g.: "The Dripstone Trail Tour is a leisurely hour-plus trek known for delicate sodastraw formations and totem pole stalagmites [read 'stalactites'] hanging from cave ceilings." Bob Puhala, "Weekend Grand Tour," Chicago Sun-Times, 2 Jan. 1994, Travel §, at 1.

But "stalactite" for "stalagmite" is hardly unknown — e.g.: "If a stalagmite [read 'stalactite'] on the ceiling joined a stalactite [read 'stalagmite'] on the floor, they made a column." Winifred Yu, "Framed by the Ages," Times Union (Albany), 18 Feb. 1996, at G11.

A mnemonic device popular among schoolchildren holds that the "-c-" in "stalactite" stands for "ceiling," while the "-g-" in "stalagmite" stands for "ground." Another useful one is "hang tight."

Language-Change Index – (1) "stalagmite" misused for "stalactite": Stage 1; (2) "stalactite" misused for "stalagmite": Stage 1.

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Quotation of the Day: "The language is ready for anything. No breakthrough in genetics or astronomy or math or physics is too big or small or complex to resist nomenclature. You find it or invent it or measure it, we'll name it. With Walt Whitman, the language sings, 'I am large — I contain multitudes.'" William Safire, "Prefixating on the Large and Small," N.Y. Times, 7 Mar. 2004, § 7, at 18.

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