Geology Word of the Week(ish): Fabric

Foliated fabric in a sedimentary carbonate rock in Oman.

In geology, like in many scientific and non-scientific specialties, everyday words often take on new meanings. Everyday words such as fault, joint, layer, reef, slip, mantle, blast, cauldron, dip, strike, exposure, and many others have specific meanings in geology. These meanings are often vaguely related to their more conventional meanings, but not always.

For example, take the word reef. This word has two definitions, both of which are geologic in nature. The more conventional definition of reef is a strip of rocks, sand, and/or coral that rises near the surface of water. This is a place you go snorkeling or scuba diving to look at pretty fishes and other biological-thingies (hey, I know rocks, not animals). However, another definition of the word reef in geology is a vein of rock (or ore) that is rich in a particular element or mineral. One of the most common ways to use reef in this context is to refer to the reefs of gold-rich ore located in South Africa.

My geologist fiance (who now works for a South African-based gold company) taught me this second definition of reef several years ago when we first started dating. He thought I was an idiot for not knowing the definition already, but he was too polite to say so at the time. Before I figured out the second definition, we had a very confusing conversation that went something like this:

Future fiance: “So, I think we’re going to visit some reefs for our honours geology field trip.” Note that he’s South African so he always speaks in “ou”s. I bet that Sid (Rebecca’s husband) does as well.

Me: “Oh, that’s great- so will you be staying along the coast then?”

Future fiance, sounding slightly befuddled: “What? No- we won’t be along the coast. We’ll be inland, near Joburg.”

Me: “Oh. I see- they’re fossil reefs. I didn’t realize there were fossil reefs inland. How old are they?”

Future fiance, talking slowly as if to a child: “Why, Precambrian of course. Most of the reefs in South Africa are Precambrian.” For the non-geologists, Precambrian is very old- older than 542 million years.

Me: “Wait… Precambrian? How can reefs be preserved that long?”

Future fiance, now clearly thinking me an idiot: “Well, most of the reefs are that old.”

Me: “So, wait, do these reefs record paleo-sealevel? They can’t be Precambrian.”

Future fiance: “Sea level? What? These are gold reefs.”

Me, utterly confused: “Gold reefs?”

You get the idea… shortly after this, I figured out that there is a second definition of the word reef. I should have known this, but then again it is a much more common word to teach in a South African geology class than in an American geology class.

Anyway, this week’s Geology Word of the Week(ish) is actually not reef (primarily because I’m at the letter F this week) but rather fabric. This is a word that has a conventional meaning and a geologic meaning. In geology, fabric refers to the arrangement of the elements (minerals, textures, fossils, layers) that make up that rock. The fabric of a rock is basically the pattern of the rock.

There are hundreds of words describing specific rock fabrics. This is not so different, I suppose, from the dozens (maybe hundreds?) of words used to describe fabrics in a conventional sense. We have words such as plaid, striped, paisley, gingham, and checked to describe conventional fabrics. Geologists have words such as euhedral, perthite, ophitic, holocrystalline, poikilitic, glomeroporphyritic, cross-bedding, lenticular beds, flame structure, foliation, and- a favorite of mine- schistosity, to describe rock fabrics. These words are more complex-sounding and esoteric than words such as gingham, but the idea is the same. These geologic words describe rock patterns just as the conventional words describe cloth (or fabric) patterns.


Evelyn is a geologist, writer, traveler, and skeptic residing in Cape Town, South Africa with frequent trips back to the US for work. She has two adorable cats; enjoys hiking, rock climbing, and kayaking; and has a very large rock collection. You can follow her on twitter @GeoEvelyn. She also writes a geology blog called Georneys.

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  1. I’ve lived in Joburg for most of my life, and always found this confusing as a kid. Everyone talked about The Reef as a very local thing, but in school we were only taught the definition of the oceanic sort of reef. Apparently, it was just taken for granted that we’d all know what the other sort was.

    I don’t recall being so confused that I thought we had coral or oceans in Joburg, and context (almost always something mining-related – most notably the crappy mining-themed amusement park, Gold Reef City) eventually gave me a rough idea of what reef was supposed to mean here. But this is actually the first time I’ve seen our sort of reef clearly defined. Good to finally catch up.

  2. Hmmm, living in Cornwall near the Great Flat Lode I’m wondering about the difference, if any, between a lode and a reef. Can you help?

  3. @Bjornar: porphyritic, to start with…

    @Spatula: It’s great that Skepchick has a reader in Joburg! My fiance grew up in Joburg, so we go there once or twice a year. What’s the skeptic scene like in South Africa? I plan on moving to Cape Town in (Northern Hemisphere) spring…

    @junco: Marin Headlands look cool… ocean sediments & oceanic volcanic rocks… my favorite! A geologic quilt… I like it!

    @Thrutch: I believe the definitions of lode and reef are somewhat similar, but I’ll double-check with my mining geologist fiance.

    @Buzz Parsec: I don’t think so… according to a quick google search anyway:

    Great questions- I’m glad people are interested! Keep them coming- they provide great procrastination from the ~12 hours of labwork I’m having to slog through these days to prep for my next committee meeting.

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