While Canada was busy watching hockey, a Texas hooker sashayed across the middle of the continent, leaving a path of destruction in her wake. Now, before the sex-worker community slams me for demeaning language, let me point out that the hooker in question was not a working girl but a winter storm.
This particular hooker was a doozy, bringing a trail of tornadoes to the U.S. Midwest. As meteorologist Eric Holthaus explained in Slate magazine, “By a chance alignment of the jet stream, colder than normal air from the Arctic and warm, moist air from the Gulf of Mexico, these storms can quickly grow into monsters.” The storm forms in the west, and “hooks” northeast.
Meanwhile, Vancouver recently felt the effects of a “pineapple express,” a stream of moist air that travels from the ocean near Hawaii and dumps a soaker on the West Coast. The pineapple express and the Texas hooker: These days, our weather is either named after medical marijuana or services you’d be ashamed to find on your credit-card bill.
This white-bearded Methuselah of a winter has given us at least one gift: a treasure chest of new weather words. When I was a kid, there was only “snow,” “goddamned snow” and “I’m going to kill someone if it doesn’t stop snowing.” Now the reports on my beloved Weather Network sound like a Dairy Queen menu dreamed up by meteorologists: Try our new Thundersnow! How about some sprinkles on that Frost Quake?
Thundersnow, which is exactly as described on the box, is not to be mistaken for the rarer thundersleet. One panicked commuter in Washington tweeted, “thundersleet in six minutes!” as if the apocalypse were nigh. It made me anxious for the actual end times, considering we haven’t saved any language for it.
Frost quakes, which suddenly seemed to lurk in every backyard, are strange phenomena that occur when relative mild temperatures suddenly plunge. Water in the ground freezes and expands, a CBC meteorologist explained: “When the pressure buildup is too much, the dirt or rocks will crack, and you hear a loud boom.”
Frost quake: There’s an enemy you don’t mind getting in the ring with. I wonder if this combative impulse is what lies behind the nomenclature of winter. We’re not just battling endless, dull months of snow and cold, but surviving microskirmishes against snow pellets and frost fog, clippers and hookers. The icy stuff that can’t make up its mind as it falls from the sky, which we used to call sleet in the air and slush on the road, is now referred to as “wintry mix.” I prefer “Sky Slurpee.”
If you love words, you can only welcome this blossoming – especially since it’s the only blossoming we’re likely to see for a couple of months yet. Why should the young people and their racing thumbs hog all the fun of bringing new words to the language?
The worse the weather, the better the descriptions. “Happiness writes white,” novelists like to say, and the same is true of weather. Once, while living in California, I heard a weatherman wearily give the next day’s forecast in two words: “Nice again.” Sunshine made his work obsolete.
A beautiful day is just that, and needs no embellishment. But an inch of ice on the roads of the southern United States causes a “snow jam,” a wonderfully evocative term for a freeway littered with abandoned cars. (This is not to be confused with “ice jam,” which is a breakup of ice in rivers that makes fishermen curse and move their beer coolers elsewhere.)
Britain has an entire lexicon to describe the 11 months when the sun doesn’t shine. “Mizzling” is a bearable amount of rain. If it’s “tipping it down,” you’ll need an umbrella, and if it’s “chucking it down,” a boat. An inch of snow is known formally as “the bloody country’s ground to a halt again.”
The Scots have particular fun: On a miserable day, you might say it’s “dreich oot,” and if a terrible hurricane tears through the country, as one did in the winter of 2011, you might take the perfectly good name it had been given in a German lab (“Friedhelm”) and change it something a wee bit saucier. Thus Friedhelm became Hurricane Bawbag, and the Scots laughed at it even as it ripped the roofs off barns. (A word of advice: don’t say “bawbag” to your new Scottish friends.)
The weather gives us fascination because it’s one of the few things that unites us all, reducing everyone to the same level of desperation (except for the least fortunate, who experience it as something worse than inconvenience). In his great story Master and Man, Leo Tolstoy throws two figures, a rich man and his servant, into the teeth of a terrible storm. In the rawness of nature, they are equals. The master wants to survive the snow so he can make more money; the peasant half-welcomes death because it would release him from his daily toil.
I won’t tell you how it ends, but it’s safe to say the snow outlasts them both. It will outlast us all – even when this winter finally ends, thundersnow and its friends will plot their return. And we don’t even know what they’re called yet.