The Grammarphobia Blog

Waste matter

Q: I heard a speaker on NPR pronounce “detritus” as DEH-tri-tus. He appeared to be an educated, native speaker of American English. Perhaps he was influenced by “detriment.” My admittedly out-of-date M-W 10th shows only one pronunciation.

A: “So to Speak,” the pronunciation chapter in the third edition of Pat’s grammar and usage book Woe Is I, also gives only one way to say “detritus”:

“Stress the middle syllable (de-TRY-tus). Hacker’s salamander buried itself in the detritus at the bottom of the pond.”

You’ll find the same thing in the Oxford English Dictionary—without the salamander—as well as in the latest versions of the two standard dictionaries we consult the most: The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.) and Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.).

Perhaps you’re right, and this mispronunciation was influenced by “detriment,” which is stressed on the first syllable.

As it happens, “detritus” and “detriment” are related. They have a common ancestor in the Latin verb deterere (to rub away, wear down, impair). But we can go back even further to that Latin verb’s parent, terere (to rub), the source of “attrition” and “trite.”

The older of the two words, “detriment” (meaning loss or damage), was first recorded sometime before 1440. As the OED says, it entered English through French (détriment, from the Latin noun detrimentum).

“Detritus” came along some 350 years later, borrowed directly from the Latin detritus (rubbing away). It was originally a term in physical geography describing an action—the “wearing away or down by detrition, disintegration, decomposition,” the OED says.

Its first appearance in writing is from James Hutton’s Theory of the Earth (1795): “Such materials as might come from the detritus of granite.”

But that usage has since become obsolete. In the early 19th century, people began using “detritus” to mean the matter produced by the wearing away. And by mid-century, “detritus” came to mean debris in general, or any kind of waste or disintegrated material.

This newer sense of the word may be “etymologically improper” (to use the OED’s words), but it hasn’t been detrimental to the language.

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