The German word for these patterns is "Schliere, pl. Schlieren", and apparently this word has entered the English language as a loanword (cf. article Schlieren in Wikipedia or entry schliere in OED). But the German loanword is probably not something most native speakers of English understand without the help of a dictionary, so what would you call, or how would you describe, the following patterns?


concrete surface


Schlieren photograph of air rising from a candle

Oil on water:

oil mixing with water

Coffee and milk:

cream being poured into a cup of coffee


liquid paints mixing


plume of smoke


striated rock surface

Marbled paper:

marbled paper

And so on.

"Waves" is not applicable, because waves are vertical undulations of the surface, while these are a pattern on, or inside, the surface level, with no amplitude.

"Striæ" does not really fit either, because those refer more to the parallel layers, than to the curly forms.

  • 2
    Pretty sure there's no word for that in English. Those patterns (with the exception of rock which is created by minerals) are due to turbulence.
    – Moogle
    Commented Aug 14, 2014 at 8:44
  • But if there is no word, English speakers can still describe such a pattern. It is such a common everyday occurrence, that there must be a way to refer to it. Just think: How would you talk about the pattern of oil on water? Or of the pattern that you aim for when you marble paper?
    – user32638
    Commented Aug 14, 2014 at 8:49
  • @What, we'd usually just say 'patterns'. Each of them might have specific names e.g. 'Latte art', but there's no overall term.
    – Ronan
    Commented Aug 14, 2014 at 8:51
  • 1
    @what there are adjectives we could use, but none of them would be specific to those patterns, nor would they be the only words possible. My first thoughts for those were such as swirls for the oil painting, or veins for the rock. But somebody could just as easily use lines or ripples or waves etc.
    – Moogle
    Commented Aug 14, 2014 at 9:01
  • 1
    Most of these patterns are 'schlieren-like', but only your air example is a schlieren pattern. The wikipedia article is pretty clear about what schlieren patterns are. The others I would describe as vortex shedding, striated veins of white stone, and marbling. Commented Aug 14, 2014 at 13:00

4 Answers 4


A descriptive term for the patterns you illustrate is swirl:

A twisting or spiralling movement or pattern:
she emerged with a swirl of skirts
swirls of colour


1a : a whirling mass or motion : eddy
b : whirling confusion <a swirl of events>
2 : a twisting shape, mark, or pattern
3 : an act or instance of swirling


  • Since the pattern I'm describing is in fact moving, this is a perfect fit. Thank you!
    – user32638
    Commented Aug 14, 2014 at 9:39
  • I would also add marbled, though that really only makes sense for hard surfaces such as the concrete and rock examples.
    – user39425
    Commented Aug 14, 2014 at 23:40

Technically speaking, the phenomenon that causes that pattern in fluids like water or smoke is turbulence, in which you'll find terms like vortex (plural vortices), which has connotations of speed or violence, or eddy, which is more or less the same as far as fluid dynamics is concerned, but in terms of literary connotations is somewhat calmer and/or slower. Both of these terms imply motion, though, so they might not work so well when talking about rock or wood.

In general, when describing that pattern I would probably go with whorl, which is also used to refer to the looping pattern in fingerprints, or maybe swirl.


If you take a direct translation, the English would be streak, or streaks.

With that said, in English the different types of patterning often attract different names. 'Lines' of streaking is often referred to as grain, rounded streaking is sometimes referred to as marbling


having markings or coloration suggestive of marble source

Could apply to: paint, oil, coffee, marbled paper


the arrangement, pattern, or direction of fibres in substances such as wood, stone, cloth, or paper source

Could apply to: concrete, rock

A word for the smoke like pattern is a bit more tricky, perhaps; smoky, wispy or diffuse.

Effectively, what you are seeing are patterns in nature

Patterns in nature are visible regularities of form found in the natural world. These patterns recur in different contexts and can sometimes be modelled mathematically. Natural patterns include symmetries, trees, spirals, meanders, waves, foams, arrays, cracks and stripes.source


Americans use Schlieren Systems to do Schlieren photography The techniques go back to the 1800's, but except in France, there's no real alternative to the word Schlieren.

  • Well, that beats a bunch of baffling downvotes. Thanks. Commented Feb 28, 2017 at 23:15

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