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Kansas Geological Survey, Bulletin 96, Part 9, originally published in 1952

Orthography as a Factor in Stability of Stratigraphical Nomenclature

by Raymond C. Moore

Originally published in 1952 as Kansas Geological Survey Bulletin 96, Part 9.

This online version has been created because the published version is currently out of print. This is, in general, the original text as published in 1952. The information has not been updated.


The problem of divergent spellings of stratigraphic names is discussed, as illustrated by examples in which (a) all usage follows "erroneous" spelling, as in Bennett versus Bennet, (b) usage is divided, as in Kimmeridge versus Kimeridge, and (c) effects of differences in language are a factor. Suggested rules are given for procedure judged best suited for stabilizing nomenclature.


Unnecessary and undesirable in stratigraphical nomenclature seems to be the emendation of names which have become well established in geological literature on the ground of some difference in spelling of the stratigraphic name and the place name of the chosen type locality. The origin of such discrepancies (fortunately few in number) is diverse and by no means all are due to error. It is even true that accustomed spelling of place names is changed with lapse of years, or locally adopted spelling may differ from that accepted officially. As in zoological and botanical nomenclature, a name is a designation which must be different for each recognized unit and in order to avoid confusion, it should be employed uniformly by all workers as applied to any specified unit.

Although certain appropriate rules have been formulated for construction of stratigraphic, zoologic, and botanic names, basically they are merely handles designed to provide precision, uniformity, and stability. A name is a name, and whenever a name is given scientific application, it is obvious that no two different entities should bear the same name (homonyms) or that a single entity should bear two or more different names (synonyms). This is a sound principle for stratigraphical nomenclature, as in other fields.

Stratigraphic Names Affected by Usage

Bennett versus Bennet

The study by O'Connor and Jewett (1952) on the Red Eagle formation in Kansas has brought to notice divergence in spelling of the name Bennett, as applied to one of the members of the Red Eagle, and the locally recognized name of the type locality, Bennet, Nebraska. This place is a small town located in sec. 10, T. 8 N., R. 8 E., approximately 18 miles southeast of Lincoln, Nebraska. O'Connor and Jewett report that the spelling Bennet appears on the local post office, railway station, and highway signs at the town limits. Accordingly, they raised the question: Should the stratigraphic name Bennett shale be changed to Bennet shale? Publication of the spelling Bennett for this place on the base map of Nebraska (U.S. Geol. Survey, 1921), and adoption of it by Condra (1927, p. 86) in the original definition of the rock unit are presumed to represent errors which should not be perpetuated. Is this an acceptable view? Alternatively, can geological usage of Bennett be continued properly or wisely, given knowledge that the place of origin of the name is differently designated? It is firmly my judgment that usage of Bennett as applied to this shale in many reports published during the 25 years since introduction of the name by Condra should be recognized as establishing it in such manner that for stratigraphic nomenclature the term is not subject to change. So far as known, the designation Bennet shale or Bennet member of the Red Eagle formation has appeared in print nowhere. Accordingly, the Kansas Geological Survey proposes to continue usage of Bennett for this division of Lower Permian rocks in the mid-continent region. The general rule derivable from consideration of the Bennett versus Bennet example may be formulated as follows:

Stratigraphic names established by uniform usage in several publications shall not be subject to change of spelling, whatever the origin of these names or the advocated reasons for change of orthography may be. If question is raised as to what constitutes "several," it is evident that no satisfactory answer can be given. Also, if attempt is made to define usage in terms of years, difficulty is encountered equally, for a 10- or 20-year period during which only one or two references to a given stratigraphic name appear in print, establishes 100 percent uniformity of usage for the period, provided spelling of the name is identical with that in the original publication. Surely, no need exists for a legalistic approach in formulating and applying a general rule of the sort here given. Geologists undertake to have common sense, and if someone wishes to discard common sense, no police authority is available to arrest him.

A stratigraphic name is merely a name. It is useful to know when, where, how, and why it was first employed because this has bearing on precise definition and understanding of the term. It is needful also to take account of usage subsequent to the date of original publication, because stability is measured by uniformity. If in several publications issued during a span of years accordance in usage is complete, surely no reason at all exists for upsetting adopted practice, and if the accordance is nearly but not quite complete, effort should be directed to suppressing minor divergent usage. Then, discrepancies in names of the sort here discussed are unimportant; essentially they have historical interest only.

Kimmeridge versus Kimeridge

Similar in some respects to the question of what spelling should be accepted for the Bennett shale is the problem of nomenclature presented in the case of Kimmeridge versus Kimeridge. This pertains primarily to designation of Upper Jurassic strata in southern England. Differences of two sorts, as compared with the Bennett example, are noteworthy: (1) Kimmeridgian (or Kimeridgian) has been adopted very widely for designation of a stage in the standard Jurassic column and thus is found to be employed for indicating the age of rocks throughout the world; and (2) neither Kimmeridge (Kimmeridgian) nor Kimeridge (Kimeridgian) is recognized with such universality as to warrant adoption of one as "correct" and the other as "wrong." Can divergence in spelling of this name yield to complete convergence?

The name Kimeridge was introduced in geological literature by Damon in 1860 (Arkell, 1947, p. 68), reference being made to the exceptionally well-exposed sections of dark shaly fossiliferous beds of the Dorset coast, southern England, near Kimeridge (or Kimmeridge), some 15 miles east of Weymouth. According to Arkell, the town name (and that of the bay on which it is located) was Kymerich in 1293 and by 1774 had become known as Kimeridge. Spelling of the name with one "m" appeared on the official Ordnance map of 1811 and in geological reports published in 1860, 1884, 1888, and 1895 (the last-cited being a memoir of the Geological Survey of Great Britain by H. B. Woodward). As indicated by Arkell (1933, p. 441) and as confirmed by my visit to the locality in the summer of 1951, the town is labeled Kimeridge on highway and other signs. Thus, consistent local usage down to the present day seems to establish Kimeridge as "correct." Kimeridge clay and Kimeridgian (or Kimeridgien, French) were recognized in Haug's (1911, p. 948) classic Traité de Géologie, Arkell's (1933) magnum opus on the Jurassic System in Great Britain, a large monograph by Termier (1936, tab. 25) on parts of northern Africa, and other papers. These facts seemingly furnish strong support for general adoption of Kimeridge and Kimeridgian in geological literature.

In 1892, the Ordnance survey of Great Britain adopted the spelling Kimmeridge (sheet 342) and this was accepted by the Geological Survey of Great Britain in 1898 (Arkell, 1947, p. 68). Since then, Kimmeridge and Kimmeridgian have appeared in hundreds of geological publications, issued in many parts of the world. A representative few of these include Neaverson (1928), Muller (1941), Gignoux (1943), Arkell (1946, 1947), Chatwin (1948), Edmunds (1948), and Moore, Lalicker, and Fischer (1952).

What solution can be advanced to achieve uniformity? Shall effort be made to secure adoption in geological literature of the spelling accepted locally for the type locality during centuries and persisting today? This seems the more logical when we recall that priority in published Kimeridge as a stratigraphic name gives it preference over Kimmeridge. Opposed to this is the fact that overwhelming preponderance of geological usage seems firmly to have fixed Kimmeridge and Kimmeridgian. The best decision seems to be one based on recognition of the separateness of stratigraphic nomenclature, established by custom among geologists, from sources of the names. Thus, without reference to spelling of the place called Kimeridge and how slightly changed spelling gained general acceptance in geological literature, it is judged that the stratigraphical names derived from this locality are appropriately spelled Kimmeridge and Kimmeridgian. A general rule derivable from consideration of this example may be stated as follows:

Stratigraphic names which are spelled divergently in many publications shall be made uniform by adoption of the form accepted by a majority of later workers, whatever may be the local spelling of the type locality or original spelling introduced in geological literature. Acceptance of this rule leads to adoption of Kimmeridge (Kimmeridgian) and rejection of Kimeridge (Kimeridgian).

Stratigraphic Names Affected by Language

A special problem in stratigraphical terminology is introduced by differences in language. What shall be the correct name of a rock unit or time-stratigraphic division based on outcrops at a given place in any country if the place name differs in various languages? Shall these place names be "translated?" For example, widely known Cenozoic rock units named from the vicinity of Piacenza and Villafranca (both in northern Italy) are termed Piacenziano (Italian), Plaisancien (French), Plaisancian (English); Villafranciano (Italian), Villefranchien (French), and Villafranchian (English). Upper Cretaceous deposits named from Maastricht, in southern Holland, are variously designated as Maastrichtien (Dutch), Mastrichter Schichten (German), Maestrichtien (French), and Maestrichtian (English).

Are such divergences of nomenclature unavoidable and are they significant? As regards time-stratigraphic names, it is evident that variations in endings imposed by language differences (as -ian, English; -ien, French; -iano, Italian, Spanish) have no significance. They do not constitute any real alteration. This is not true, however, if the "stem" of the place name is changed, as by alteration of Piacenz- to Plaisanc-, or by modification of Villafranc- to Villefranch-. Even if one grants that no ambiguity exists from citation of the name in these variant forms, the differences seem unnecessary and undesirable. Why not adopt the spelling of any place name in the country of its origin, thus accepting (in English usage) Piacenzan, Villafrancan, Maastrichtian, etc., instead of terms based on translations of place names? Patently absurd would be reference to the Liberty Hall limestone (Ordovician, Virginia) as "calcaire de la Salle de Liberté" (French), or "Freiheitskammer Kalkstein" (German). This is never done, but after all it is not essentially different from less violent linguistic alteration of place names. A general rule based on avoidance of translation may be stated:

Stratigraphic names should employ the spelling of place names in the country of their origin rather than that of equivalent names in other languages.

Application of such a rule naturally does not call for replacement of long-adopted stratigraphic terms based on Latinized place names, such as Lutetian, from Lutetia (Paris), by their equivalents in present-day use. To do this would be absurd. Indeed, the fact that functions of scientific nomenclature are well served by employment of almost any name that avoids homonymy and synonymy is illustrated by the evident distinction between the words Lutetian (time-stratigraphic) and Paris (rock name). Conceivably each might be adopted in stratigraphic nomenclature, being applied to different units without ambiguity or confusion. The terms themselves are not alike even though they are derived from the same geographic feature.

What about correlative place names such as Brussel (Flemish) and Bruxelles (French), Luik (Flemish) and Liège (French), Bâle (French) and Basel (German), Morat (French) and Merten (German), and many similar variations. These are alternative designations accepted in the country to which they belong; one is as correct and official as another. An example of stratigraphic terms based on names in this category is furnished by Bruxellian, well known as a division of Eocene deposits in Belgium. The spelling adopted is uniformly derived from Bruxelles, not Brussel; hence, this has sanction of usage and should take precedence over the slightly different name Brusselian. Because of the close similarity of these French- and Flemish-derived spellings, most geologists would agree that it is very inexpedient to employ both names. It is possible, however, that such a term as Brussel sand could coexist with Bruxellian stage without introducing confusion. Without doubt, names like Luik and Liège, or Bâle and Basel could furnish clearly distinguishable pairs of stratigraphic terms, if needed. Although they refer to the same place, they are virtually as separate as if they belonged in different countries.

It seems to be repugnant to proprieties which take account of national pride that stratigraphic names should be formed, either originally or by translation, on foreign-accepted names. For example, the London clay should be known everywhere and in any language as London clay--not argile de Londres. In other words--

Spelling of stratigraphic names should conform to usage recognized in the country that contains the type locality and it should not be altered by conversion into equivalent but different words in other languages.

The question of transliteration into roman letters of words written in other alphabets, such as Greek, Cyrillic, Persian, and Chinese, and the proper mode of dealing with special letters, such as those in German characterized by the umlaut (ä, ö, ü), Swedish å, or Norwegian and Danish ø--to mention a few--has interest but it is passed over here. It would be appropriate for consideration of the Commission on Stratigraphy of the International Geological Congress.


Maximum possible uniformity in stratigraphic nomenclature is desirable in the interest of clarity and stability. This uniformity includes spelling of stratigraphic names but does not at all embrace classification of rocks for which the names are introduced. Homonyms and synonyms of whatever origin are to be avoided because inevitably they conduce nomenclatural confusion.

Usage is a more important criterion than priority of publication or the mode of spelling the name of a type locality, when question arises as to choice between different names for the same stratigraphic unit.

Stratigraphic names should not be formed on the basis of translation into a language foreign to the country in which the type locality is placed, or built on a name for such place used in a foreign country if this differs from the locally recognized name. This does not exclude linguistic variation in the nature of endings employed for time-stratigraphic terms, however.


Arkell, W. J. (1933) The Jurassic System in Great Britain: Clarendon Press, Oxford, pp. 1-681.

Arkell, W. J. (1946) Standard of the European Jurassic: Geol. Soc. America Bull., vol. 57, no. 1, pp. 1-34.

Arkell, W. J. (1947) The geology of the country around Weymouth, Swanage, Corfe and Lulworth: Geol. Survey Great Britain, Mem., pp. 1-386.

Chatwin, C. P. (1948) The Hampshire basin and adjoining areas: Geol. Survey and Mus., Great Britain, British Regional Geology, pp. 1-99.

Condra, G. E. (1927) The stratigraphy of the Pennsylvanian System in Nebraska: Nebraska Geol. Survey, Bull. 1, 2d ser., pp. 1-291.

Edmunds, F. H. (1948) The Wealden district: Geol. Survey and Mus., Great Britain, British Regional Geology, pp. 1-93.

Gignotux, Maurice (1943) Géologic stratigraphique; Masson et Cie, Paris, 3d ed., pp. 1-667.

Haug, Emile (1911) Graité de géologic: Armand Colin, Paris, vol. 2, pp. 539-2024.

Moore, R. C., Laucker, C. G., and Fischer, A. G. (1952) Invertebrate fossils: McGraw-Hill, New York, pp. 1-766.

Muller, S. W. (1941) Standard of the Jurassic System: Geol. Soc. America Bull., vol. 52, no. 9, pp. 1427-1444.

Neaverson, E. (1928) Stratigraphical paleontology: MacMillan & Co., London, pp. 1-525.

O'Connor, H. G., and Jewett, J. M. (1952) The Red Eagle formation in Kansas: Kansas Geol. Survey, Bull. 96, pt. 8, pp. 329-362. [Available online]

Termier, Henri (1936) Etudes géologiques sur le Maroc central et le Moyen Atlas Septentrional: Service des Mines et de la Carte Géologique (Maroc), Mem. 33, tome 4.

U. S. Geological Survey (1921) Base map of Nebraska, scale 1:500,000.

Kansas Geological Survey, Geology
Placed on web July 18, 2006; originally published Dec. 31, 1952.
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