You Don't Say John E. McIntyre writes about language, usage, journalism & arbitrarily chosen subjects.

In a word: detritus

The Baltimore Sun

Each week The Sun’s John McIntyre presents a relatively obscure but evocative word with which you may not be familiar, another brick to add to the wall of your vocabulary. This week's word:


Detritus (pronounced duh-TRY-tus) in its earliest sense meant the fragments left from the disintegration of rocks. The word descends into English from the Latin detritus, a noun formed from the verb deterere, “to wear down.”

But it was too useful a word to be limited to rocks, and so it became handy to any result of disintegration, any fragmentary material—in short, debris.

And it did not take long for its usefulness to be extended metaphorically. One can deal, say, with the detritus left over from a failed love affair or marriage. Everything is wearing away all the time.

Example: From Alice Park, Alexandra Sifferin, and Mandy Oaklander, “The Power of Sleep,” Time, September 22, 2014: “The brain also runs checks on itself to ensure that the exquisite balance of hormones, enzymes and proteins isn’t too far off-kilter. And all the while, cleaners follow in close pursuit to sweep out the toxic detritus that the brain doesn’t need and which can cause all kinds of problems if it builds up.”

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