• spelunker •
Pronunciation: spee-lêng-kêr • Hear it!
Part of Speech: Noun
Meaning: An amateur cave explorer, a cave enthusiast, a person whose hobby it is to explore caves, (British) a potholer.
Notes: "Well, if spelunkers are amateurs," I hear you ask, "what are professionals who explore caves scientifically called?" They are called speleologists and their discipline is called speleology. The formations found in caves—stalagmites, stalactites, and such—are known as speleothems by speleologists.
In Play: Unlike troglodyte "cave-dweller", today's word refers to those who only explore caves: "The Spelunker's Club gathers for their monthly meetings in a nearby cave." We can, however, bring this word out into the light, even if we have trouble bringing spelunkers out: "The weather was so dark and cold that not even spelunkers would have enjoyed the picnic."
Word History: This word started out as a lexical plaything in the US in the 1940s, but has since acquired an air of legitimacy. It apparently is based on Latin spelunca "cave, cavern", which Latin took from Greek spelunx (spelunk-s) "cave, cavern". It appears in several other Western European languages, including Dutch spelonk and German spelunke, both meaning "cave". The English suffix -er is an uncomfortable fit for nouns (although less so in Britain (footballer, for example). It is doubly uncomfortable when added to a Latin root. Still, it seems to have found a comfortable place for itself within the English vocabulary. How this word came to be in ancient Greek is one of many great mysteries of etymology. (We thank Kathi Kitao of Kyoto, Japan, for bringing today's Good Word to the surface and shairing it with us.)