Tails, tailing or tailings? A rose by any other name would smell as sweet.

In one of the proceedings of Tailings and Mine Waste, Prof. John Nelson presented a somewhat tongue-in-cheek paper titled, ¨Tails, Tailing or Tailings¨.  In that paper from the 1990s, Prof. Nelson presented the results of a limited survey wherein participants were polled to determine the most popular usage of the three choices, tails, tailing, or tailings.  By a slim margin, the term tailings beat out the other two alternatives, reaffirming that the annual conference had in fact been named aptly.  The overriding consideration offered by Prof. Nelson, though, was to employ the term preferred by the client.  A quite reasonable suggestion, at least for individuals in the consulting industry.

The debate over proper usage of the term often becomes heated amongst practitioners who boast a preference.  Reasoning is colorful and varied.  One of my colleagues prefers to approach the argument from a purely grammatical perspective.  I think he is a misguided grammarian.  This particular argument draws a parallel with similar terms, for example beach sand.  One would not tend to say that they had visited a ¨sands beach¨ or observed a ¨silts deposit¨, then why say ¨tailings beach¨ or ¨tailings deposit¨?  According to this logic, the tailings option is thought to be plural, and therefore incorrect. 

Grammar rule number one: all grammar rules have exceptions.  When I was growing up, I played baseball.  I would frequently hit a fly ball, high into the air, which was easily caught by a fielder.  Where I grew up, we would say that I flew out.  It turns out that this is incorrect, as the correct baseball term for this would be that I had flied out.  Maybe I flew on an airplane, but in baseball, I definitely flied out.  Thus, a logical approach does not always apply if the logic is ill founded. 

In addition, the simple presence of the letter ¨s¨ at the end of a word does not necessarily imply the word is plural.  Take, for example, the nightly news broadcast.  If your local TV station decided to present an entire hour dedicated to a single topic, it is unlikely they would call that segment the ¨nightly new¨.  It would still be the news, I believe.  Another example would be a popular term for a feeling of melancholy.  Would a mild case of the blues be called the blue?  I hardly think so.  You can feel blue, but you would have a case of the blues.  The ¨s¨ at the end of these words does not really imply a plural.  What about blue jeans?  What does that “s” imply?  Nothing; it’s just what that are called.  Like “pants” which is another word for “slacks”.    

Perhaps consulting the dictionary would be helpful.  In fact, it is not.  Various dictionaries use all three terms, tails, tailing, and tailings, with no distinction for the one and only correct term.  Perhaps the correct choice would be related to the original version of the term.  And perhaps not.  Times change, and so does language.  Simply being the inventor of a word does not imply that the word will forever exist in that format.  Dictionaries reflect popular usage.  New words that are being batted about sometimes end up in dictionaries, and words whose usage change are updated in dictionaries when necessary.  A while back, words like bad, hip, cool and groovy gained new meanings, causing their new connotations to be entered into the dictionary.  Words like ain´t were words that were long denied entries in traditional dictionaries, as their usage was not fully accepted by the culture.  Now, words such as these are commonly found in dictionaries.  Thus, dictionaries should reflect popular usage, and not the reverse. 

Whether not it is historically accurate, and whether or not is seems grammatically correct, the popular choice of terms used by practitioners in this particular venue seems to be tailings, and it is that term that ought to be reflected in dictionaries. 

I rest my case. 

Argue if you wish.

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Comments (2)

  1. Karlis Jansons

    November 12, 2021 at 8:52 pm

    This is a great post. It is an issue I have pondered often (weak and weary…) but have come to the same conclusion – Tailings is the term we should use. Now lets dive into the difference between Dike, Dyke and Dam. My fallback is the same as Prof Nelson – defer to the client. I have even used Dique in reports!

    • admin

      November 14, 2021 at 11:59 am

      Many thanks Karlis. To me, “tailing” doesn’t even sound right.

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