Thursday 2 December 2010


Eskimos have no more words for snow than we do. The notion that they do is a myth, a mirage, and a cold white lie. They certainly don't have fifty of the damned things.

We have a few words of our own: snow, blizzard, sleet, slush, powder and neve (a field of even snow). And if we feel this isn't enough, we simply invent compounds: snowstorm, snow-flake, snow-flurry, snow drift, snowfall and snowperson.

It is exactly the same in your average igloo. The Eskimo-Aleut languages (of which there are several) have a few bases and many compounds. So the next time somebody repeats this porkie to you, cudgel him.

The urban myth of the Eskimo's verbosity did give rise to the young and useful word snowclone. A snowclone is hackneyed sentence structure. X is the new rock'n'roll. What do you get if you cross an X with a Y?*

The reason it's called a snowclone is that so many hackneyed hacks have written something along the lines of:

If Eskimos have N words for snow, X surely have Y words for Z.

Snowclone was invented by a language blog called Language Log, which goes to show something, but I don't know what.

The past tense of snow used to be snew, on the same pattern as grow and grew or know and knew. So it snew in the night.

*I imagine that the answer would be that you'd get back together with her.


  1. Having lived among Native Alaskans, I can tell you that there's no such thing as an Eskimo (and they find the term relatively offensive). They're either Natives (in Alaska) or First Nations (in Canada), or referred to by their specific tribe. So to claim that Eskimos have 50 words for snow is silly, since there are tons of different tribes that speak a myriad of languages (one is a close relative of Navajo), in many different climates (ranging from tundra to rainforest).

  2. On the other hand, there is such a thing as an Eskimo language.

  3. I should make it clear that by "Eskimo" I mean anybody who lives north of Brent Cross.

    I am asserting a negative, and doing so at second hand as the Inky Fool budget doesn't stretch to sleighs and snowmobiles. I read it in a book, and have never myself been north of Brent Cross.

    Eskimo is an exonym meaning eater of raw meat. Inuit just means people. Native is wrong as they came from Siberia. And First Nation is dodgy until this whole Tlapacoya thing has been sorted out.

  4. Call me a hackneyed hack, but Washingtonians certainly have a lot of words for rain. It falls so consistently that the only way to express variations in amount/intensity is to use a varied vocabulary.
    "It's more of a drizzle."
    "It's just...misting." (When it's technically raining but the drops are too small)
    There's downpours, showers, sheets, monsoons (Not in the actual literal sense, but it's still used a lot), and a bunch of other terms.
    Our local weatherman Steve Pool also coined a new term: mizzle.
    I also think that ours is the only weather station to use the term "sunbreaks."

  5. I once heard that Washington was built on a swamp deliberately, on the basis that nobody would want to live in a place with a climate like that and it would therefore be neutral territory for a capital.

    I'm afraid mizzle is not a new coinage. In fact, I once wrote a post about the word, you can find it here.

  6. I am always amazed at the mass and heap of words that come tumbling out of old books on subjects such as gardening and landscaping and such.
    I spent an hour on coppicing and pollarding trees, ending up with "bodgering".

    All very informative terms; not a bit of superfluity nor the nonchalance of wastrel wordiness.

  7. No, the other Washington. The state between Oregon and Canada. Everyone always thinks "DC? Have you ever seen the president?" If you say that you're from Washington. No, I'm talking about the Washington with Sleepless in Seattle and Microsoft and all those people.
    Washington was originally going to be called "Columbia" because of the Columbia river which forms its southern border. People objected, saying that it would be confused with Our Nation's Capitol and thus dubbed it "Washington."
    I think the miserable swamp was Virginia, and the swamp made it safe from invasion but also safe for mosquitos.

  8. And Steve Pool! You have lied to me.