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In descriptions of areas in southern Utah, United States, I frequently see mention of slickrock (example from NPS (PDF, 240 KB). However, slickrock is not described on Wikipedia and the first result on Google Search is Join Slickrock for your next Belize (!) vacation. Google Scholar results appear to relate mostly to geographic areas with slickrock or slick rock in the name. Oxford Dictionaries wonders if I meant sly grog (I don't think I do), despite 742,000 results on Google Search and 44,400 on Google Books.

Slick does have several meanings on wiktionary, such as slippery, sophisticated, untrustwothy, clever, great, and smooth. The first and the last make sense in context to rock and consistent with Google Images results, although I can't tell whether slickrock is slippery or not.

What is slickrock?

  • 1
    Did you try other online dictionaries? Merriam-webster, Dictionary.reference and Collins have this word. Also, you can google as "dictionary slickrock" instead of just "slickrock". – ermanen Nov 9 '15 at 0:16
  • If you rode a horse through that country, you would understand how "slick rock" got its name. Horses wear steel horse shoes which slide easily on that sandstone. The early ranchers and cowboys coined the name "slick rock" because of the slippery footing for their steel-shod horses. – Michael T Oct 12 '16 at 15:29
  • According to Wikipedia it's formed from lithified sand dunes. Got its name from slipping wagon wheels. – Julie Smith Oct 23 '17 at 22:01
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From Tom McCourt, Cowpokes to Bike Spokes: The Story of Moab, Utah (2007):

Slickrock is a term used to describe outcroppings of smooth, weathered sandstone. There are thousands of acres of the stuff around Moab. Slickrock has a surface like concrete that is great for biking and jeeping, but it can be dangerous to hikers. It's easy to lose your footing, and slickrock sheds water instantly. ...

Slickrock got its name from cowboys—not because of the water hazard it presents, but because it is dangerous to travel on when your horse is wearing iron shoes. Horses have a tendency to slip and fall when crossing slickrock, especially at high speeds. The danger is compounded when the sandstone is wet. ...

The orange, yellow, brown, and white sandstones near Moab, Utah (which is very close to Arches National Park and Canyonlands National Park) are quite grainy—very different in texture from soapstone or marble or other types of rock that might seem better suited for the name slickrock.

In the absence of a better explanation, I would surmise that the both sandiness of the slickrock formations and the lack of firm soil on them to provide good footing contribute to the name. Certainly if ranchers widely used the name generations ago, the particular problems that Tom McCourt says iron-shod horses have with their footing on slickrock are a likely source of the name.

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According to Merriam-Webster:

slickrock n.

smooth, wind-polished rock

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There's a possibly related term in geology: slickenside that refers to certain features of sheer surfaces of fractured, unstable, adjoining and interacting masses of rock or consolidated sediment. According to my Quick and dirty 2 AM insomniac's online research, slickenside is an English term (not Germanic as I thought) originating in 18th century Derbyshire in the north of England. See, e.g., https://link.springer.com/referenceworkentry/10.1007%2F3-540-31080-0_100 and https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/slickenside . Slickrock ( which I've just run across in a novel set in New Mexico) and slickenside (which I recall from long-ago geology courses) may be "homologous" words, rather than ones sharing a clear, related etymological derivation.

protected by tchrist Oct 24 '17 at 1:36

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