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You snowing me?

A snow scene in Canada.

In 1989, the American linguist Geoffrey Pullum wrote a sarcastic piece with the title The Great Eskimo Vocabulary Hoax, in which he derided and deconstructed claims that the Inuit (as we have since learned to call them) had 50, or 100, or 200 words for snow. The numbers have enlarged in the telling, starting with an article in 1940 by Benjamin Lee Whorf (one half of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis) and grossly extended subsequently through sloppy research, careless copying, half-understood references and the desire for a good story.

On 30 September this hoary old folktale reappeared in headlines asserting that the Scots language has more words for snow than the Inuit languages do. The stories below the headlines explained that academics compiling the pilot Historical Thesaurus of Scots (which by no sort of coincidence was launched online the same day) have unearthed 421 words for snow used in the language from the earliest times to today.

Examples include feefle (to swirl, as of snow round a corner), flindrikin (a slight snow shower), spitters (small drops or flakes of wind-driven rain or snow), snaw-pouther (fine driving snow), feuchter (of snow, to fall lightly, to come down in odd flakes), snaw-ghast (an apparition seen in the snow), blin-drift (drifting snow), sneesl (begin to rain or snow), and skelf (a large snowflake).

Not to deride the linguistic inventiveness of the Scots (or the Inuit), but English can also claim an excellent count of snow-related language, even if we exclude words borrowed in relatively recent times from other languages, like the Latinate niveous (relating to snow), French névé (uncompressed granular snow on a glacier) or the originally Russian sastrugi (parallel ridges formed on snow by the wind). If we’re being strict about this exclusion, we ought also to reject avalanche from French (we have our native snowslide, though it lacks the cataclysmic implications of the French word). We might also feel obliged to exclude the special vocabularies of skiers, such as crust and powder, and the colloquialisms of Antarctic scientists, which include sago snow (very fine round balls of snow), piecrust (soft snow with a covering of hard but brittle snow) and degomble (to clear snow off clothes or sled dogs).

Words such as slush, sleet and blizzard are common. We may legitimately include our several dozen other compounds of snow, such as snowflake, snowdrift, snow-bank, snowstorm, snow cover, snowscape, snow cloud, snow-glare, snow shower and snow-driven, because that word-forming process is close to that used in Inuit languages, which can generate a large number of compounds from a few roots.

But there are many more: shelling (a fall of snow on the back of a sheep), flother (a flake of snow), windcrust (a crust formed on the surface of soft snow by the wind), hap (a heavy fall of snow), besnow (to cover or whiten with snow), reek (a pile of snow), penitent (a spike or pinnacle of compact snow that has been sculpted by the elements), whited (covered with snow), blind-drift (a drift of heavy snow), mafting (drifting snow), balter (snow adhering to horses’ hooves), blunk (to snow lightly), snittering (the fall of snow), pitching (of snow that lays, that is, doesn’t melt when it hits the ground), plodgy (of deep snow that’s not yet trodden down), oversnow (whiten over with snow), and hogamadog (a huge ball of snow made by boys rolling a snowball over soft snow, which word is, you may like to know, defunct Northumberland dialect).

If you conclude from your ignorance of the great majority of these that I’m cheating by featuring rare, obsolete or dialectal words, you would be right, though the same may be said of the Scots thesaurus. However, it makes a good story for the papers on publication day, though linguists might wish that it hadn’t given yet more exposure to that daft story about the Inuit languages.

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.

Page created 03 Oct 2015; Last updated 10 Oct 2015