• detritus •
Pronunciation: di-trai-tês • Hear it!
Part of Speech: Noun, mass
Meaning: 1. Loose pieces of rock and such worn away by rubbing or weathering. 2. Left-over debris or waste matter from anything.
Notes: This odd little word comes from a dysfunctional family: the noun is detrition, but there is no verb to detrite, as we might expect. It is cousin to detriment, since too much rubbing is a detriment to most objects. Just avoid confusing the ending -us on this noun with the more common adjective ending -ous, which is pronounced the same way.
In Play: Detritus is first and foremost the left-over waste from physical activity of some kind: "Ma Hogany doesn't clean up her shop until the detritus from all her wood-working projects is knee-deep." More broadly, though, this word can refer to the refuse of anything, concrete or abstract: "The network talk shows today amount to the detritus of political thought, ideas thought up and discarded years ago."
Word History: Detritus is the past participle of Latin deterere "to wear down, to lessen" (unrelated to deter). This verb is composed of de- "(away) from" + terere "to rub", which makes the origin of the meaning clear. The same root turns up in Russian teret' "to rub", but came down to English with a suffix, leading to our words thresh and thrash, which is to rub very hard, indeed. Without the prefix de-, today's word is tritus "worn out", which English wore down to trite, while significantly altering its meaning to "trivial and banal".