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I recently learned a new word:  nurdles. These are plastic resin pellets, typically 1-5 mm in size, created as an intermediate stage in plastics production. Losses in production and transportation apparently  make them a major contribution to marine pollution.

I learned this word from reading about two environmental activists in Louisiana who have been charged with terrorism for leaving a box of nurdles on the porch of an oil and gas lobbyist.

James Bruggers, "Two Louisiana Activists Charged with Terrorizing a Lobbyist for the Oil and Gas Industry", Inside Climate News 6/26/2020:

Two Louisiana environmental activists face up to 15 years in prison after they were arrested Thursday for terrorizing an oil and gas lobbyist by leaving a box of plastic "nurdles" on his front porch. […]

Rolfes and McIntosh are part of a broad coalition fighting to stop the Taiwanese Formosa Petrochemical Corp. and its subsidiary, FG LA LLC, from constructing a massive, $9.6 billion plastics and petrochemical complex, proposed on 2,400 acres in a predominantly Black portion of St. James Parish. […]

The incident that prompted the arrests happened on Dec. 11, after a report of a "suspicious package" left on the porch of a residence, said Don Coppola, a spokesman for the Baton Rouge Police Department.

A lobbyist for the oil and gas industry lived in the home, The Times-Picayune and The New Orleans Advocate reported. There was a note on the package "indicating not to open the container as the contents could be hazardous," Coppola said. It contained plastic nurdles—the raw material from which plastic products are made—that had been manufactured at another Formosa plant.

For another news report, see "How a file box full of plastic got two Louisiana women arrested for terrorizing", 6/25/2020. For an interview with one of these "terrorists", see "Louisiana Activists Face 15 Years for 'Terrorizing' Oil Lobbyist with Box of Plastic Pollution", Democracy Now 6/29/2020. And for some background on where the Texas terror pellets came from, see Amal Ahmed, "Nurdle by Nurdle, Citizens Took on A Billion-Dollar Plastic Company — and Won", Texas Observer 7/3/2019.

Since this is Language Log, and not Marine Pollution Log or Weird Self-Defeating Legal Over-Reach Log, our topic here is the word nurdles. The OED's entry (new in 2018) glosses nurdle  in the relevant sense as

Chiefly in plural. A granule or very small pellet of unprocessed plastic, esp. as found as a pollutant on beaches, in seawater, etc.

and gives citations back to 1997:

1997 C. C. Ebbesmeyer in Beachcombers’ Alert! Newslet. Spring 5/2 Surfers occasionally ask California lifeguards what they are: ‘Oh, yeah—nurdles,’ Marine Safety Officer Mitch White said… He had no idea why they're called nurdles, except to say that's what he called them when he was growing up.
2002 U.S. News & World Rep. 4 Nov. 59/3 Moore collected baseball-size gelatinous animals called salps and found their translucent tissues clogged with bits of monofilament fishing line and nurdles (more romantically referred to as ‘mermaid tears’ by beachcombers).
2009 Philos. Trans. (Royal Soc.) B. 364 2159/1 Pre-production plastic pellets, also described as nurdles..account for around 10 percent, by number, of the plastic debris recorded on shorelines in Hawaii.
2018 S. Elias in D. E. DellaSala & M. L. Goldstein Encycl. Anthropocene I. 136 (caption) Plastic pellets (nurdles) recovered from Hong Bay after an accidental spillage from a chemical company ship.

The etymology is given as "Origin unknown":

Perhaps compare nodule n., knurl n., knobble n., all denoting small round things.
Compare the following earlier example of nurdle used as a vague, non-technical word to denote a small object:

1985 Cincinnati Inquirer 15 Nov. d1/1 This for people who look under the hood and see this little hoochie and that little thingamabob and all those nurdles, as opposed to spark plugs.

The word is also used (from 1979 or earlier) for a shot in tiddlywinks (compare nurdle v. 1) but this is probably unrelated.

The Wiktionary entry for nurdle also cites a couple of (unrelated?) verbal senses

  1. (cricket) To score runs by gently nudging the ball into vacant areas of the field.
  2. (conversation) To gently waffle or muse on a subject which one clearly knows little about.

as well as another nominal sense, "A blob of toothpaste shaped like a wave, often depicted on toothpaste packaging", with a link to a 2010 WSJ article "Colgate, GlaxoSmithKline, Set to Battle Over Toothpaste ‘Nurdle’".

Merriam-Webster hasn't caught up with nurdle yet, which makes me a little less embarrassed about having learned the word myself just a few days ago.



  1. Philip Taylor said,

    July 19, 2020 @ 5:00 am

    I have never encountered "nurdle" as a substantive, but in the ?1970?s there was a television programme starring Michael Bentine called It's a square world", and one of the phrases repeatedly used in that series was "Argh, he's nurdled !". What exactly "to have nurdled" was meant to imply is no longer clear, but without doubt he who "nurdled" did not achieve all that he set out to …

    Wonderful examples here.

  2. Philip Taylor said,

    July 19, 2020 @ 5:06 am

    Wikipedia tells me that I have the chronology (and various other aspects) wrong, but it and I agree that the phrase was made very popular by Michael Bentine.

  3. Andrew Usher said,

    July 19, 2020 @ 8:48 am

    Now that's a bizarre jargon word. I assume its use in the industry must go even before 1997.

    The merits of the environmentalists' claims are indeed off-topic, but surely it ought to violate some law to intentionally leave unwanted trash on other people's property, even without any intent to cause fear?

    k_over_hbarc at yahoo dot com

  4. Trogluddite said,

    July 19, 2020 @ 10:11 am

    @Andrew Usher: "…it's use in the industry…"
    During the last couple of decades, I've worked designing injection-moulding tooling for plastic parts, and I've never come across this term used by any of the engineers or machine-operators that I worked with (including overseas contractors). This suggests to me that either the word is regional (I'm in the UK), or that "nurdles" is usually only applied to the pellets when they're a pollutant – that is; the usage was coined by folks who didn't know their original purpose, akin to the 1985 citation in the main post.

    [(myl) A quick scan of hits for "nurdles" in Google Scholar suggests that the term is mostly used to refer to pollutants, though occasionally also to recycling.]

  5. cameron said,

    July 19, 2020 @ 12:04 pm

    Did "nurdle" already occur in The Goon Show? That show is a bit before my time, but I've heard some recordings of it. "Nurdle-nurdle-noo" comes to mind as a Goon-ish sort of nonsense phrase.

  6. Gregory Kusnick said,

    July 19, 2020 @ 2:48 pm

    If intentionally leaving unwanted trash on other people's property is a crime, the US Postal Service is by far the worst offender.

    On topic, it seems to me I've heard nurdling around used in a similar sense to puttering around, though I can't offer any citations. I wonder if nurdle in this sense is somehow related to nerd.

  7. David Morris said,

    July 19, 2020 @ 3:58 pm

    Rendered in the scripts as "needle-nardle-noo!".

  8. Andrew Usher said,

    July 19, 2020 @ 6:21 pm

    I guess I am corrected – though there are obviously some people that consider 'nurdles' an appropriate neutral term – but I must object to Trogluddite's falsely attributing a grammatical error to me. I wrote "its use", NOT "it's use", which I hopefully never would. Assuming that's not malicious, it's greatly careless.

    Given that 'nerd' itself is of uncertain origin, a sound-connection to 'nurdle' is not implausible – though how those uses relate to the plastic stuff is still a good question.

  9. Steve Morrison said,

    July 19, 2020 @ 7:16 pm

    The Cincinnati Inquirer? That should be the Enquirer.

  10. Michael Vnuk said,

    July 19, 2020 @ 7:19 pm

    The 2002 citation says: 'nurdles (more romantically referred to as ‘mermaid tears’ by beachcombers)'. I had only seen 'mermaid tears' (or 'mermaid's tears') applied to 'beach glass' or 'sea glass', the rounded fragments of glass found on beaches, not to plastic. However, a quick search shows that 'mermaid tears' includes plastic for some users.

    Looking up 'mermaid tears' is difficult because of all the other products with that name, such as vodka and cosmetics, but when people try to sell mermaid tears as decorative pieces or jewellery, it seems to be only glass, not plastic.

    In terms of jewellery, I find it interesting that the glass is often in its natural state, which has a frosted-looking surface, whereas most other jewellery emphasises features such as shininess or smoothness.

    I'm guessing that 'mermaid tears' as applied to glass is a somewhat romantic, wistful use, whereas the term as applied to plastic is a much sadder use or even a rueful use.

  11. Gregory Kusnick said,

    July 19, 2020 @ 8:49 pm

    The mermaids in Fort Bragg, California must be very sad indeed.

  12. Keith said,

    July 20, 2020 @ 2:42 am

    @Michael Vnuk
    The term "mermaid's tears" for sea-glass might be influenced by the term "mermaid's purse" for shark's or skate's egg pouches found on beaches.

    I imagine that the term "nurdle" might be coined after the word "noodle" that is used for extrusion-moulded pieces of plastic (e.g. pool noodles). Somebody who works in the industry could tell us if nurdles are created by snipping off pieces of a noodle.

  13. Ross Presser said,

    July 20, 2020 @ 7:24 am

    Here's a 1968 toothpaste advertisement using the word. "One nurdle of Vote toothpaste is strong enough to kill the dragon and clean and brighten your pretty little teeth."

  14. Ross Presser said,

    July 20, 2020 @ 7:33 am

    More discussion of Vote toothpaste's nurdles in 1968.

    Note that one of Vote's novel features was that apparently it was the first dentrifice packaged in a plastic tube.

  15. Ross Presser said,

    July 20, 2020 @ 7:45 am

    Silly me — you did mention the toothpaste usage of the word at the end of the original post. My apologies.

  16. Trogluddite said,

    July 20, 2020 @ 10:17 am

    @Andrew Usher: My apologies. "It's" for "its" is a "muscle memory" typo to which I'm embarrassingly prone, and my careless proof-reading embarrasses me yet further!

  17. Andrew Usher said,

    July 20, 2020 @ 8:19 pm

    Although I make unfortunately frequent 'muscle memory' errors in typing, they never involve apostrophes, probably in part because that key is so far from the usual position of my fingers.

    I wouldn't have mentioned it if it appeared anywhere else than a quote of me.

    Anyway I'm sure you can agree that my faulty assumption regarding the word 'nurdles' is understandable; I didn't see where else it would originate, and neither apparently does anyone else know.

  18. Trogluddite said,

    July 21, 2020 @ 6:59 am

    @Andrew Usher
    My experience of industrial "shop-floors" is that local neologisms naming tools, raw materials, products, and by-products are extremely common. So I certainly wouldn't exclude the possibility that an often-spoken but rarely-written slang word has been adopted into a new context where it has become a more formal term of art.

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