The Generalist

Weekly Word: Cataract

To many Americans the first thing that will come to mind when they hear this word is the cloudy object that sometimes develops in the eyes of older people and usually has to be removed. But there is another meaning for this word that you might not be so familiar with: it is another name for a waterfall.

To American ears, waterfall probably sounds much nicer, but most likely that’s due to the association in our minds with a pathology of the eye. The word cataract comes from the French word cataracte, which means waterfall and according to a few sources, its origin is probably the Greek word katarassein which means to “dash down”. I have yet to discover how the word came to mean a clouding of the eye.

Lately, as you may have noticed, I am particularly interested in geology and geological terms. This one came up as I was investigating the history of Niagara Falls – the 2nd widest continuous cataract in the world after Victoria Falls in Zimbabwe. To give you some idea about the sizes of these landforms, Victoria Falls is a whopping mile wide and about 360 or so feet tall. Niagara is about 170 feet tall with the Canadian Horseshoe being about half a mile wide, and the American Falls adding about a quarter mile to that.

If you click on the links above they will take you to the Wikimapia satellite view. This can be a fun way to become acquainted a famous geographical location and it has gotten a lot easier to do lately. Wikipedia now includes a link to GeoHack, a program that creates a list of known internet map resources with links centered on the location of interest. For example, check out this Wikipedia entry for Victoria Falls. At the top on the right, you will see the geographical coordinates for the Falls. Clicking on that link will take you to the list of maps. Just find your favorite map and click to go to that map centered on Falls. Easy, and it helps to put a location in perspective, especially if you intend to travel there at some point. Wikimapia is my particular favorite because locals can label places of interest right on the map for you.

If you’re a “cataract” buff, then you will probably like the World Waterfall Database which looks to be the pet project of a couple of guys who really like waterfalls. I must admit, it’s a very cool site and a great place to quickly obtain statistics on a number of waterfalls, including some of the lesser known ones – like this one:

Great Falls, Paterson, NJ
Great Falls, Paterson, NJ

The Great Falls in Paterson, NJ are a lot smaller than Victoria or Niagara, but they are rich in history and for me, fairly close to home.

Here are some cool pictures of cataracts from various locations on the web:

Particularly beautiful shot of Niagara Falls from above

Particularly beautiful shot of Victoria Falls from above (note: GeoEye has a lot of beautiful satellite images in their gallery for download)

IguaƧu Falls in Brazil from above

Angel Falls (Highest Waterfall at 3,212 ft) in Venezuela

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