Today is the anniversary of the Novarupta eruption, the largest volcanic eruption of the 20th century. Nova rupta is of course good Latin for "new broken thing", where the thing in question is feminine.

My question is, what is this thing? I would expect a name like Novus ruptus [sc. mons vel collis]. Is there a feminine noun in Geological Latin that this is referring to?

2 Answers 2


I was unable to find any rationale for the naming, but I can offer some plausible options:

  1. The volcano in question has a large caldera, so perhaps the word refers to it rather than the whole mountain. The word caldera looks like it should be feminine.

  2. Perhaps the underlying noun is terra (or tellus). The volcano was formed in the eruption, so "newly broken ground" makes for a reasonable name.

  3. It could have something to do with eruptio, the even that formed it. The new eruption would be eruptio nova, and that could perhaps transform into rupta nova. This kind of formation is not unheard of in Latin; recall that we say ab urbe condita instead of a conditione urbis.

  4. It could also be a neuter plural, "newly broken things". Perhaps this was originally meant and it was later reanalyzed into feminine singular.

After thinking about it, option 2 (terra) sounds most likely. But it's hard to be certain.

  • The more I think about your answer, the more I think "land" is almost certainly right. This seems especially obvious if you think that much volcanology is oriented around the study of islands, and young islands are often described as new lands.
    – Figulus
    Jun 7, 2020 at 19:21
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    @Figulus I agree, that's the most likely explanation, assuming it was a conscious choice by someone who knows some Latin. I edited to add a fourth option, but it's certainly not as likely as terra.
    – Joonas Ilmavirta
    Jun 7, 2020 at 20:26
  • Actually, this might be very likely. It's not clear to me that it has been analyzed as feminine, but in English we refer to it in the singular. That might just be an American thing though, and have nothing to do with its origins, as with data.
    – Figulus
    Jun 7, 2020 at 22:27
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    @Joonas llmavirta & Figulus: The problem here might be the fact that the Romans did not have a word for "volcano"; certainly, prior to Vesuvius (79AD); after that, "mons (masculine) igneus" = "mountain of fire". a valid description but not a "new", unique term.
    – tony
    Jun 9, 2020 at 11:24
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    @tony Note, the Romans knew what volcanism was before 79, thanks in no small part to living practically next door to a very big volcano (and almost constantly active), Mt. Etna on Sicily. See Aeneid III, 570 for a vivid description of its activity. Jun 10, 2020 at 6:16

Dr. R. F. Griggs, the man credited with naming Novarupta (and the leader of the 1915 expedition to "study the re-establishment of plant and animal life after the devastating and almost unprecedented volcanic eruptions of Katmai in 1912" as well as five other expeditions in the are), was trained in geology, zoology, and taxonomy. However, he was a botanist.

This choice must have been intentional, if he was following the rules set forth in the International Association for Plant Taxonomy's (IAPT) 1912 Brussels Rules version of The International Code of Nomenclature for algae, fungi, and plants (ICN), as a botanist trained in taxonomy. Unfortunately there is very little information on the naming process for Novarupta itself, even from the late Dr. Griggs. On page 192 of his book The Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes, he simply states:

We did not take time to examine the conditions to the west, for we beheld in the opposite direction a prodigious steam column from a volcano we later named Novarupta.

(The we seems to indicate consensus on the naming among that expedition, which may have been the 1919 one - the largest of the six expeditions, at 19 members. One member was a petrologist and two were topographers, meaning that there would have been the opinion of a geologist on the naming as well as topographers putting names on maps. How much they played a role in the naming is unknown)

These are some relevant quotes from the Brussels Rules:

(Chapter 1, Article 4) 2. to avoid or to reject the use of forms and names which may cause error or ambiguity or throw science into confusion.

Next in importance is the avoidance of all useless creation of names.

Other considerations, such as absolute grammatical correctness, regularity or euphony of names, more or less prevailing custom, respect for persons, etc., notwithstanding their undeniable importance are relatively accessory.

(emphasis mine)

(Chapter 3, Section 1, § 1) XIII. In the formation of specific names composed of two or several roots and taken from latin or greek, the vowel placed between the two roots becomes a connecting vowel, in latin i, in greek o; thus we write menthifolia, salviifolia, not menthaefolia, salviaefolia. When the second root begins with a vowel and euphony demands, the connecting vowel is eliminated (e. g. calliantha, lepidantha). The connecting ae is legitimate only when etymology demands (e. g. caricaeformis from Carica, may be retained along with cariciformis from Carex).

(emphasis mine again)

It's also worth noting that the translation is always given as "new eruption", never as "new broken thing" (the above question is unique in that translation), meaning that rupta could come from "eruptio" as was referenced in the first answer - which almost makes the most sense, given the common translation. Adding to that is that 'rupta' is apparently a participle (meaning you're not going to be combining it with another adjective - unless there is a noun version that means 'broken thing' instead of the adjectival 'broken').

So how 'Novarupta'?

In 'novus', '-us' is counted as a connecting vowel, being replaced by an 'i'. However, this would become 'novi' normally (but the numbers and case don't make sense for that). 'Eruptio' becomes 'ruptio', both of which are feminine, apparently (that's beyond my ken, but it also makes sense). But how does that become 'rupta'? It really can't. Which means 'rupta' would just come from 'erupta', meaning something very similar to eruptio. That 'ruptio' and 'rupta' are already words was probably ignored. 'Novus', as an adjective, instead becomes 'nova' to match the gender (Feminine), number (singular), and case (nominative) of 'erupta' (which is likely still referencing 'eruptio').

Summary: Novarupta was named by a botanist. Botanical species nomenclature sometimes involves combining two root words. While this may not have been done perfectly, it's likely the basis for Novarupta would be Nova Erupta.

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    Also, we should keep in mind that Andrew Fleming West, a professional classicist with impeccable credentials, managed to compose the words “Academia Medicinae Nova Eboracensis” for the building of the New York Academy of Medicine, where they still are. People make mistakes, and sometimes they do not get corrected. Jun 9, 2020 at 17:03
  • That's quite true. To me, it's just as likely this comes from a poor grasp of Latin as from a unique selection of words. Even if all the scientists in the 1919 expedition studied Latin, it's possible that very few of them remembered vocabulary perfectly from their years at school.
    – Lulah
    Jun 9, 2020 at 18:01
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    Thanks for posting all this information! Everything you say is obviously true, but my conclusion differs from yours. Novarupta is not the same thing as noviruptio (although that would have been a fine name), and Novarupta is not a botanical name (nor is there any reason it should be). I think that Joonas' answers are so probable that I'm embarrassed to have not thought of them, "new broken land" or "new broken things" (prata?)
    – Figulus
    Jun 9, 2020 at 20:37
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    I am not saying that "Novarupta" is the same thing as "noviruptio". I'm saying it's possible that it was inspired by "nova" and "eruptio", but "erupta" was chosen as a root (either on purpose or as an improper declension of "eruptio"). I am also not saying it's a botanical name. Not only is it for a volcano, but it fails at that. My point is that Griggs was a trained taxonomist and that would like influence his approach to naming.
    – Lulah
    Jun 9, 2020 at 20:51
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    Or to be brief: I don't think that it was "good Latin" as you stated. I think it's poor Latin that happens to mean something else than what it was intended to mean.
    – Lulah
    Jun 9, 2020 at 21:01

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