A word for snow


There’s an impression around that if you head to Alaska, check out languages such as Inuit and Yupik, you would find hundreds of words for snow. And that is… well… it’s actually a fiercely debated topic.

Why? Because many research efforts into the claim (which is credited first to Frank Boas, an anthropologist) arrive at a conclusion that for any tally the final totals would depend on your definitions of the word and guidelines for counting. In many instances, linguists believe that variations of the same word are being given too much credit as different. In some cases, they have found conditions being credited for different descriptions of snow. For instance (for the following, these are my examples and not specifics from studies)…

  • Let’s look at snow as a noun (“there’s snow on the ground”) and as a verb (“it’s snowing”). In English, most people would say that we’re talking about snow and shrug it off without a thought. And yet, there are those that would argue “snow” and “snowing” are two very different words, and they might argue that on several different merits.
  • We can experience plenty of different conditions associated with states of water. Snow, ice, sleet, frost… there you have four words. Some might chalk frost and ice up as the same. When counting up different words for snow a very forgiving reading would have just added all four words to your list. Now start thinking about slush and more… and you get it… suddenly there are lots of words in English for snow.

This is not an essay looking to think about research papers from anthropologists or grammatical origins as agreed upon credible linguistic studies. Instead, it’s simply showing that we all have different ways of explaining things. And it’s more than snow… snow is just a great example.

When you live in the northeast of the United States, you see a fair amount of snow. This is especially true in higher elevations and as you near the border with Canada.

The other day I was outside with a shovel, pondering the joys of time invested in clearing pathways around the house. I was also being grateful that our current driveway is significantly smaller that our last driveway, and also happens to not have a major uphill run. As part of daydreaming while I worked, I wandered along into the area where I considered all of the different snow we’ve encountered so far this winter.

There isn’t a best snow when it comes to addressing the driveway. If it’s close to freezing, the snow is usually more heavy and wet. If it’s incredibly cold, the snow is usually more light and fluffy. With heavy snow, to be honest, the shoveling sucks. It kind of packs together in ways that make it difficult to plow out of the way. That means you need to lift more often. Snowblowers work wonderfully well with heavy snow. Light snow? Snowblowers hate light snow. The stuff comes up the chute and just sort of explodes with a **poof** that disintegrates and then falls, barely a few feet away and right back in the driveway.

And that’s just heavy and wet as opposed to light and fluffy. After a few days… roads with heavy traffic end up with dirty snow banks… piles of plowed snow can melt down to piles of dirt and salt. Snow doesn’t even need to fall… since a steady, strong wind can send you outside with a shovel or a broom to clear areas that you had already cleared since the last flake of the most recent storm had fallen.

Got the right mix of depth and temperature and foot traffic, and sidewalks can turn onto an amazing paste that in a fascinating way measures up to beach sand.

We could go on… but you get the idea.

Snow and snowing…

Ice… sleet… frost… slush…

Addressed with shovels and snowblowers and plows and boots…

There are plenty of words in English for snow.

At times you’ll hear about how some languages offer more or less options for the ways they describe things. The multitude of ways to say love and kissing could be one, while heading out to Hawaii and saying “aloha” for just about everything as another.

All of which ultimately leads to me, in the driveway, with a shovel and some time for thought.

Go across America and try asking for a sandwich. From grinders to tunnels, subs to hoagies, you have a good chance of being served a plate that looks similar despite the words on the menus (and at the right places, a good chance of finding an amazing lunch). All you need to do is decide if you want a pop, tonic, seltzer or soda to drink with it.

And about that soda… how about a Coke? Much as Xerox and Jacuzzi have become brand names taking over entire product classifications, there are times when a diverse industry has been rolled into a single name. Funny, since all rectangles are not squares.

Communication is an amazing thing. The way we classify, define, and express our thoughts borders on chaos, and truly is without definition when it comes to rules and guidelines. And before you consider arguing with me about rules and guidelines, at least consider how many words have changed their meanings and applications at least once during your life.

If you’ll excuse me, I need to head out and scrape off the windshield of my car. I’m going for a drive in a bit, and there’s… well… something on it.

If you have any comments or questions, please e-mail me at Bob@inmybackpack.com