Opinion & Blogs » Rosie Right

Weatherology

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Like most literate non-Eskimo-speaking Americans, Rosie has believed that Alaskan Native languages have 14 words for snow. She was startled recently to find that Stephen Pinker, professor and director of the Center for Cognitive Neuroscience at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, in his famous book "The Language Instinct," says that this oft-repeated fact is what young people today call an urban legend.

"Speaking of anthropological canards," he writes, "no discussion of language and thought would be complete without the Great Eskimo Vocabulary Hoax. Contrary to popular belief, the Eskimos do not have more words for snow than do speakers of English. They do not have four hundred words for snow, as has been claimed in print, or two hundred or forty-eight, or even nine. ... one dictionary puts the figure at two. Counted generously, experts can come up with about a dozen, but by such standards English would not be far behind, with snow, sleet, slush, blizzard, avalanche, hail, hardpack, powder, flurry, dusting and a coinage of Boston's WBZ-TV meteorologist Bruce Schwoegler, snizzling."

Blizzard is a particularly interesting item in the list above because H.L. Mencken in his American Language, Supplement 2, tells us that blizzard "appears to have been set afloat by the first wave of Western pioneers, though it did not acquire its present significance until after the Civil War." It meant at first a violent blow or a rifle shot.

But when was it first applied to a severe snowstorm, with high wind? Mencken credits a scholar, Allen Walker Read, with a believable theory that this transfer occurred in the village of Estherville, Iowa, in 1879 in the village newspaper.

While we, in Richmond, cannot call the recent "weather event" a blizzard, we can apply many of the other terms to it and can add sleet, freezing rain, drizzle, downpour.

Even with all these wonderful words to contemplate, Rosie, housebound during the great snow, found herself vaguely sympathizing with the King in Dr. Seuss' "Bartholomew and the Oobleck," who was so bored with the usual run of precipitation that he asked the court wizards to come up with something new. This turned out to be a mistake, as the magicians produced green sticky stuff that snarled the kingdom and its people until the intrepid Bartholomew Cubbins came to the rescue. Given the mischief that ordinary weather can cause, Rosie will content herself with ordinary fallout.

* weatherology, found in Mencken's American Language

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