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A pedestrian braves the heavy snowfall in front of the Fairmont Empress Hotel in Victoria, Feb. 23, 2011. (Deddeda Stemler for the Globe and Mail)
A pedestrian braves the heavy snowfall in front of the Fairmont Empress Hotel in Victoria, Feb. 23, 2011. (Deddeda Stemler for the Globe and Mail)

Warren Clements: Word Play

The forecast: Watch out for a blizzard of eiderfalls Add to ...

How people describe snow – printable, unprintable – depends on how they view its arrival.

They may turn for inspiration to singer-composer Kate Bush’s latest CD, 50 Words for Snow, in which she offers 50 words for snow (including “snow”), apparently alluding to the ever-shifting assertion that the Inuit have 50 words for snow, or 100, or 140. But she devises her own words, which, as she told Jian Ghomeshi this week on CBC Radio’s Q, she asked actor Stephen Fry to recite in his mellifluous voice so they might carry an air of authority.

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Most of her words are, like snowflakes, ephemeral: erase-o-dust, spangladesha, deep’nhidden. A few may, like the wet snow suitable for snowmen, have sticking power: eiderfalls, whirlissimo. Fans of snow may select swans-a-melting, meringue peaks or vanilla swarm. Snowbirds – those who flee south for the winter to avoid the stuff – may prefer ankle-breaker, bad for trains and hooded-wept.

By the way, starting in the late 1800s, a snowbird was a man who enlisted in the U.S. Army in winter to be sure of steady meals and a roof over his head, and who deserted when spring came.

In the late 1930s, a snowbird was a woman who introduced clients to drug dealers. Snow was (and is) slang for cocaine, because of “the extremely flocculent nature of cocaine when pulverized,” to quote the Vocabulary of Criminal Slang of 1914. Snow has also meant silver money, the visual “noise” on a television screen, and linen (because it’s white). In 1811, a snow-dropper was somebody who stole linen.

But let’s get back to the naming of snow, which is a crowded field in English as in other languages. The obvious nouns we will be hearing about in the coming months – sleet, hail, slush, flurry, powder, dusting – merely scratch the crusty surface.

The second edition of the Dictionary of Newfoundland English records two descriptions of violent, snow-heavy weather around March 17, St. Patrick’s Day. Sheila’s brush (also Sheila’s blush, or just plain Sheila) is followed closely by Patrick’s batch (or brush, or broom, or snap). Both a brush and a batch are late winter snowfalls.

In the New England states, sugar snow (an expression dating from the mid-1800s) is a late spring snowfall that gives harvesters more time to collect maple syrup, because the sap runs more slowly. Even caribou has a snow connection. Derived from Mi’kmaq by way of French, caribou means snow shoveller, a reference to the animal’s knack for removing snow to get at food below.

Snow began in Old English (circa 825) as snaw, derived from a Germanic root believed to have come from the Indo-European root snigwh or snoigwho. The latter also produced the Latin nix, source of the French word for snow, neige.

No one is sure where blizzard came from. One source suggests the German Blitz, lightning, or a mid-1770s word for severe rainstorm, blizz. But the Oxford English Dictionary yokes the snowy blizzard (first citation: 1859) to the sense of blizzard as a violent blow (first citation: 1829), and thinks it was probably just onomatopoeic; a blizzard sounds like a noisy punch.

The OED discounts a connection to the French blesser, to wound, since there is no evidence to substantiate a French connection. Speaking of The French Connection, snow has sometimes been slang for heroin.

As for the number of Inuit words for snow – start with apigianngaut for autumn snowfall, aput for snow on the ground and aqiluraq for soft, light snow – all sorts of figures have been debunked and defended over the decades. Much depends on whether one counts all the variant word endings or insists that the words be distinctive. The same applies to English; it might be cheating to count snowdrifts and snowbanks as separate words for snow.

But pick whichever number you’re comfortable with. As Bessie Smith almost sang, t’ain’t snowbody’s blizz-ness if you do.

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