As I look out my northern window at the cold, barren landscape being buried once again by wave after wave of the swirling “white stuff,” I'm reminded of that story that circulated a few years ago about the Eskimo words for snow.
Do you remember the story? Let me see if I can remember it for you.
I'll try my best to get the facts straight, but if I don't it won't really matter, right? As a licensed Maine storyteller I'm expected to exaggerate and misconstrue facts when necessary. Truth is we storytellers are encouraged to do so.
Anyway, here's how I remember the story. Someone a while back wrote that Eskimos - because of their frozen, barren surroundings - had almost 30 different words for snow, but no words able to express important phrases like “zero percent financing” or “price based on double-occupancy.”
After the initial snow article appeared, several language “experts” chimed in on the subject, explaining why it was only reasonable to assume that the Eskimo language would be so rich and creative in expressing ideas on something as ubiquitous as snow but wordless when it came to expressing such things as: “see dealer for details.”
The thing I remember about these so-called experts is that although they had all kinds of fancy English degrees after their names, they didn't confess to having any great knowledge of the Eskimo language. I saw no articles from Inuit or Tlingit linguists who might have had more of a clue as to what the “snow” situation was there in Eskimos country.
A year or two after the original article came out someone actually went north to talk to some Eskimos for a follow-up piece. What they discovered was that Eskimos had one word for snow and - like us - a lot of words used to express feelings about snow that most people including Eskimos try not to use in polite company.
Thinking about all this it occurred to me that besides those naughty words we hurl at the swirling snow, we also have more than one way to describe winter weather in polite English. I didn't have to wait long to be proven right.
When my clock radio clicked on the next morning I heard the weather guy begin his snowy forecast like a waiter in fancy restaurant talking about his main course.
“Beginning as a dusting, today's storm will turn quickly to a crisp bed of freezing rain, followed by a hearty course of fluffy snow and perhaps a garnish of more freezing rain and sleet, a hint of hail for a little variety, and chances are pretty good it'll all go back to snow and a possible blizzard to cap off today's meteorological event.”
Throughout the day I thought of other words our language gives us to describe winter conditions. What is an avalanche if not one of our many ways of describing the wonders and surprises of snow? We had to go to the French language for the word but that's one of the beauties of English. If it doesn't have the precise word you need, it allows you to go over into another language and snitch a word that suits you. Blizzard? Squall? Flurry? Whiteout?
I'll spare you some of the descriptive phrases I came up with which weren't very nice.