The Many Faces of Snow

Snowflake

Well, it’s December, dear readers. And for me, that marks the beginning of about six months of winter. As I write this, there is already a foot of snow in my backyard.

This got me thinking about that thing people say about the incredible number of words Inuit people have to describe snow. And I wondered how many words we have in English. It turns out that we have a lot. In fact, depending on how you define words that describe snow, English actually has more words than the Inuit languages.

So, today, I thought it would be fun to look at some of the English words for snow and tell you a bit about what they mean and where they come from.

Blizzard:  A severe, sustained snowstorm with high winds. The origins are unknown, but blizzard first appeared in American English in the early 1800s.

Firn: Crystalline or granular snow, particularly the kind you find on the upper parts of glaciers, where it hasn’t been compressed into ice yet. Firn comes the German word meaning last year’s snow, which can be traced back to the Old English fyrn and the Gothic fairns, both meaning of last year.

Frazil (rhymes with hazel): Soft, slushy ice formed by an accumulation of ice crystals in water that is too turbulent to freeze over. Frazil appeared in the late 1800s, coming from the Canadian French word frasil, which means snow floating in the water.

Graupel: Small particles of snow with a light crust of ice; soft hail. Graupel appeared in the late 1800s and comes from the German word graupeln, meaning hailing with soft hailstones.

Piste: A ski run made of compacted snow. Piste first appears in the early 1700s, coming directly from the French word, which means racetrack. The French piste comes from the Latin word pistus, meaning to pound or stamp.

Sastrugi: Parallel wave-like ridges formed by wind blowing across the surface of hard snow. Sastrugi first appears in the mid-1800s and comes from the Russian word zastrugi, meaning small ridges.

Slush: Partially melted snow or ice. The origins are uncertain, but slush first appears in the mid-1600s. It’s generally thought that the word is simply imitative of the sound you make when walking through slush. (Making it a great choice for onomatopoeia.)

Verglas: A thin coating of ice on an exposed surface. First appearing in the early 1800s, verglas comes from the French words verre, meaning glass, and glas/glace, meaning ice.

And there you have it. Eight English words to describe snow. There are plenty more, but I thought this was a nice sample. I don’t know about you, but I certainly learned some new words today. I’m not sure if it will make winter more bearable, but at least we’ll be able to identify exactly what kind of snow we’re looking at!

If you’d like to learn more about English words for snow—or see a comparison between Inuit and English—check out the following links:

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Thought I’d link up with the Moonshine gang this weekend.

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Image credit: Olga Lyubkin / PhotoXpress.com

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21 thoughts on “The Many Faces of Snow

  1. That’s interesting. I remember learning about the ‘Inuit words for snow’ concept in my Linguistics classes, in the context of whether language shapes thoughts or vice versa. There’s this concept that having words for something helps you see it; if you don’t have the language to express it, then it’s harder to both see it and communicate it to others. The counter-argument is that language is full of creative work-arounds–adjectives and such–that we can use to describe something we don’t have a specific word for. Your definitions for each kind of snow are an example of that. What do you think about that?

    1. That’s an interesting question Kylie! I think we shape language into what we need it to be. After all, it’s really just a symbolic interpretation of the world around us, right? That said, I definitely think that language helps us to understand and communicate different concepts, which is why it’s constantly evolving (selfie is the word of the year, don’t you know?) to reflect where we’re at as a species.

    1. Some of these terms were new to me too. Actually, I’m really not a big fan of the long, cold winters, but I’m stuck here for a few more years. After that, I’d love to move somewhere that doesn’t have winter. Maybe I can learn all the words for “sand” and “surf.” 😉

  2. A foot of snow and six months?!? Good grief. I feel bad complaining about our 3 months and a dusting. I didn’t realize we had so many words – I just use the same ones: Stupid snow, awful snow, wretched snow…

    1. Yes and yes. Someday I will live somewhere with no snow. That way I can visit at Christmas and enjoy how pretty it looks before the temperatures plummet to inhumane. 😉

      Thanks for commenting Michelle!

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