Thursday, January 3, 2008

Words for Snow

It is traditionally the Inuit or Eskimo who are supposed to have a huge variety of words for snow - although there are as many articles debunking this on the internet as there are claims that it is true. One satirist has listed 100 words for snow, but lots of other sites point out that there is a lot of double-counting going on in some of the lists. Some of the debunkers also point out that English has a wide range of snow words: avalanche, blizzard, cornice, dusting, flurry, frost, hail, hard pack, ice, powder, rime, slab, and sleet (not bad for a language that developed in the rainy British Isles). We also have loan words like igloo (from one of the Eskimo languages) and graupel (soft hail, from German). Then there are all the newer terms from the worlds of skiing and snowboarding, such as
  • sugar powder: a light, dry, fluffy snow;
  • champagne powder: very dry snow so light it can't be made into a snowball;
  • cold smoke: even drier, with less than 3% moisture;
  • packed powder: snow that was powder yesterday and is still fairly soft but has been groomed or packed down;
  • crud: heavy snow that has been tracked up by other skiers;
  • mashed potatoes: mushy, wet snow so heavy a shovel stands up in it.
  • boilerplate or bulletproof: hard, dense icy snow, often created by a thaw or rain;
  • corn snow: spring snow that forms into small, light pellets (aka graupel);
  • white asphalt: harder than hardpack;
  • crust: the thick layer of hard-packed snow on top of softer snow; and
  • New England ice.
The Japanese also have some interesting snow words. Hatsuyuki is the first snow, kazahana is wind-flowers, or snowflakes, and botan yuki is peony snow, the big soft wet flakes that float lightly out of the sky. But the winners of the snow competitions seem to the snow scientists, who borrow snow words from any and every language that has a useful one, in particular from the Eskimo and Russian languages, until their papers are nearly indecipherable to an outsider.

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