What does the word ‘xeric’ mean?

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Increase your vocabulary and you’ll make your writing much more precise. That’s why I provide a word of the week. Today’s word: xeric….

In addition to being a famous and highly successful novelist, Barbara Kingsolver is also a botanist.

Her novels tend to incorporate her specialized knowledge, none more particularly than Unsheltered, which includes a plot-line relating to Charles Darwin. And, of course, her vocabulary matches her understanding, leading her to make literary use of scientific language.

Here, for example, is how she used the word xeric:

Willa was used to defending Christopher, whose xeric charm was lost on her family, putting it mildly.

I’d never encountered the word before but its first appearance dates back to 1926, when botanists used it to describe plants or animals that had adapted to survive in a dry environment (like the one shown in the photograph at the top of this post.)

Before 1926, botanists had tended to use the terms xerophyte and xerophytic to describe plants that were well adapted for survival in dry environments. But some felt the need of a more generic word that included both animals and plants. As a result, they proposed the word xeric (from xēros, the Greek word for “dry”) as a more generalized term for either plants or animals. They also suggested that “xerophytic … be entirely abandoned as useless and misleading.”

But the Ecological Society of America disagreed, stating that xeric was “not desirable,” preferring terms such as arid. Others declared that xeric should refer only to habitats, not to organisms.

Scientists used the word anyway, and by the 1940s xeric was well documented in scientific literature. In Kingsolver’s book, she’s of course, using the word metaphorically, illustrating the splendid combination of scientific knowledge embellished with literary flair.

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