|Home | Welcome | What's New | Site Map | Glossary | Weather Doctor Amazon Store | Book Store | Accolades | Email Us|
Weather Almanac for December 2007
OF WORDS AND WEATHER
Words and weather have been a part of my life for well over half a century as interests that have guided my vocation and advocation. I'm an unrepentant punster and love the opportunity to turn a new phrase in a poem or article. I was likely one of the first to use the term urban soup to refer to the plethora of chemicals found in urban air that contribute to photochemical smog. I may have even coined it because I knew of no other references at the time I first used the analogy.
In past installments of the Weather Almanac I have looked at how weather has played a role in poem and song and at the many names given the wind and the naming of storms. So to close off the tenth year of The Weather Doctor almanacs, I take a look at weather and words in the singular form and in the turn of a phrase. That look includes the naming of places and other things after weather phenomena.
Whether or Not
While a doctoral student at the University of Guelph, I taught the tutorial for the introductory weather course. One of my students topped his assignment with the title Wheather Problems. I just had to comment that the title was the worst spell of weather I had ever seen. Of course, that reminded me of an old rhyme I had heard whose authorship I would have to credit Unknown:
Whether it rains,
I personally was glad whenever my forecast for severe summer weather was met with thunderous applause, but at times, my prognostication was just all wet. You can see I enjoy lightning up a day. It also is good to snow that the forecast may be chili today and hot tamale.
Words for Weather
Now that I have the punstering out of my system, we can take a more serious look at weather words.
The word meteorology comes from the Greek and has the same root as meteor: meteoron, which refers to any phenomenon in the sky. The Greek philosopher Aristotle used the term in his book (c. 340 BC) on atmospheric phenomena entitled Meteorologica. You will still see meteorologist refer to liquid or frozen water (rain, snow and snowflakes) in the air as hydrometeors and dust, sand or smoke as lithometeors. Of course at the time meteorology was first used, the thought that rocky material which we now call meteors and meteorites would ever fall from outside the Earth's atmosphere.
For much of my career, I considered myself a micrometeorologist (-ologist indicating a person who studies something) as I studied weather on a small scale. Those who specialize in the study of tree-rings to determine past climates is known as a dendochronologist. The best ologist to my thinking is the paleotempestologist. He or she is one who studies the occurrence and impacts of ancient storms from such information as unusual deposits at the mouths of rivers and in wetlands, and changes in vegetation patterns, particularly tree species. The term reportedly was coined by Kerry A. Emanuel, Professor of Atmospheric Sciences at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
The words that make up the vocabulary of weather have come to us over the centuries as we needed words to describe the complexity of the three-dimensional, ever-changing world of weather. In the early nineteenth century, Luke Howard gave us the basic terms from which most clouds are named: cirrus, cumulus, stratus and nimbus. Add alto to that quartet and we have the parts for most of the basic cloud family. To those, many cloud types are given a sub-species name such as castellanus, mammatus, congestus, and fibratus.
Henry Piddington gave us cyclone in 1840 to describe the wind-field coiled like a snake around a center of low pressure. Gustavus Hinrichs coined the term derecho in the 1880s to describe a violent, widespread windstorm emanating from long-lived thunderstorm complexes. The list of technical terms can go on and on.
Many other weather terms such as El Niño came from folk descriptions of a particular event. When meteorologist found a similar, and in some ways opposite, phenomenon, they considered the term El Viejo, Spanish for "old man" but then settled on La Niña, the "little girl" as the opposite to El Niño, the little boy. (The folk origin of El Niño actually referred to the Christ Child, as the local El Niño phenomenon came around Christmas time.)
Hurricane appears to derive from native tribes of the Carribean and was then adopted by Spanish mariners plying those waters. Once used to describe any fierce storm in the Carribean and West Indies waters, it now has a very strict definition for type of storm and wind speed associated with it. Other words like tornado and blizzard also began in common speech before being adopted into official weather lingo. In the last century, we have furthered our naming of storms by giving individual storms human names such as Andrew and Hazel or names based on plants and animals such as the Western Pacific tropical storms Mawar and Damrey.
While storm names have often arisen from folk terms, no weather element has as many different names as the wind. From the ancient Greeks we get the basic names of Nortus and Zephyr. The field of wind names is so rich, that I have devoted a whole essay on the topic "They Call The Wind" and even that essay barely scrapes the surface of rich wind names from around the world.
We often hear some pundit proclaim that the peoples of the Arctic, the Inuit and Eskimo, have hundreds of words for snow while English has but a few. But as I wrote in Snow Words, Dude, you need only hang out among the lovers of snow, the winter athletes, and you will hear a myriad of terms to describe specific snow conditions such as pukak, chowder, and champagne powder.
Words of the Folk
With all respects to the other tongues of the world, English may be the richest in weather words, stemming from the fact that English speakers unabashedly appropriate words from other languages when we find one of use or beauty. Hurricane, typhoon, chinook, and haboob are just some of these words. When no one has a good word for some weather phenomena, we just coin one that fits. Both Canada and the United States have regional words for a specific type of weather from the Santa Ana to the Nor'easter. But perhaps no place on this continent can hold a candle to those creative and loquacious residents of the Rock, or the island the rest of us call Newfoundland.
I offered a smattering of Canadian Weather Words elsewhere, but I would just like to repeat the colorful terminology given us by those Newfoundlanders.
Silver glitter describes an ice storm's deposit which then becomes a silver thaw when the ice melts. Sheila's brush names a fierce wind and snowstorm striking around St Patrick's Day that is usually considered the last of the winter. Sheila, according to legend was either St Patrick's wife, sister, or mother.
Wreckhouse winds are strong gales known for blowing trains off tracks and trucks off roads. These southeasterly winds blow along the south coast of Newfoundland west of the Burin Peninsula, as far west as Port aux Basques. Stun breezes are a bit tamer but still strong, winds over 37 km/h (23 mph or 20 knots).
On the Rock, mauzy denotes damp and warm, muggy weather, sometimes with light rain. Oppressively hot and humid weather is loggy. Misk (or misky) describes light rain or mist; or when vapour rising from the sea after a cold night (sea smoke or steam fog). Scad is a sudden and brief rain or snow shower. And with strong winds added, a scad becomes a dwigh. Scad is not to be confused with scuddy weather which is uncertain, characterized by sudden scuds or gusts of wind.
And if words for weather don't arise spontaneously, we think hard and come up with new terms to describe the situation. I, for instance, needed a term to describe the balls of ice that formed on my beard and mustache during the cold winters in the latter half of the 1970s and came up with winter pearls.
Comedian Rich Hall about the same time decided that we needed new words for many things and called them Sniglets. One of particularly meteorological interest was downpause, that described the "split second of dry weather experienced when driving under an overpass during a storm."
Canada's CBC Radio stood at the forefront of developing new terminologies in a contest segment produced by Jane Farrow several years ago called "Wanted Words." In response to a listener's request for a new term, the morning show hosts put the challenge to its listeners. One that caught my fancy was sent in by Ian MacLachlan, of Bedford, Nova Scotia who asked for a term to describe "the perilous sidewalk snow canyons we encounter in winter. The snowbanks left by plows and shovels are often impassable, other than a narrow gulch cut through them the width of a boot." Among the better suggestions were: footfjord; the Snow-Chi-Minh Trail and ididarut.
Weather words have also been adapted into everyday language for expressions not related to weather. For example:
Weather Names for Places, People and More
When my publisher asked for suggestions for a subtitle for my book The BC Weather Book, I thought using British Columbia place names would fit the bill well. The first to pop into my head was the Sunshine Coast, an area along the coast north of Vancouver. To give some opposition to the Sunshine Coast in both elevation and weather type, I scoured the gazetteer for names and came up with Storm Mountain, which can be found along the eastern border of the province.
A while later, I began thinking of place names related to weather, and the first one to pop into my head was that very apt name for a town in the deserts of southern California: Thermal. Storm Mountain is, I find, a rather common name for a mountain, perhaps because mountain peaks and ridges often form storms as moist air passes over them. Sunshine Coast reminds me that Florida is called the Sunshine State, though that is more a nickname than the real place name. A quick perusal of the North American gazetteer produced these locations and communities.
Researching thd naming of things after weather became a small obsession with me and I thought of what else we name after weather. Boats and ships is probably a lucrative category for weather-related names. Another category that has always fascinated me is the names for race and other horses, so I looked up horse names on the internet and gleaned this brief list.
Of course, there were many horse names with Wind and Snow in them.
And while we now name tropical storms after human given names, many names given to people derive from the weather. I offer here those most commonly used in North America, but there are many names given in non-English languages to children. One girl's name I find particularly beautiful is Amaya which in Japanese means "night rain."
One of the more obvious weather names is Gale (Gayle) which can be used for both boys and girls. Merryweather means "cheerful weather" and Nevada comes from "snow capped." Rain, Storm and Tempest are often given as names to both sexes. The girl's names Elysia and Elyse both derive from an old English word that meant "lightning struck." Doireanne comes from the Gaelic and means "tempestuous weather." Perhaps the most common boy's name is Thor or Tor coming from the Norse god of thunder. Bronte, again meaning thunder, is another surname, like Merryweather turned into a given name.
Sports teams also carry weather-related nicknames and one of my favorites was the Guelph Storm, named by my former slopitch teammate Dave Kendrick who was one of the first owners. Other sport team names with a weather flavor include:
To end the section, I take note of car model names such as the Pontiac Tempest, the Pontiac Solstice, the Saturn Sky, the Chevrolet Equinox, and of course, the Ford Thunderbird.
Enter Candy For Your Sweety
After posting this essay, I learned in early 2008 that NECCO, makers of Sweethearts Conversation Hearts since 1866, are introducing new weather-themed slogans for Valentine's Day 2008. The Sweethearts Conversation Hearts will carry weather-themed phrases including: "Melt My Heart," "In A Fog," "Chill Out," "Cloud Nine," "Heat Wave," "Sun Shine" and "Get My Drift." In a press release, NECCO marketing manager Lory Zimbalatti said: “Each year we look for new sayings that encourage sweethearts to express their feelings in a different way. This Valentine’s Day season, we decided to celebrate Mother Nature with our new Sweethearts sayings that highlight the excitement and unpredictability of the day-to-day change of weather and people’s love lives.”
Finally, my research found that many weather words become parts of games and contests, particularly word games such as crossword puzzles. Weather words even find their way into Spelling Bees, including the Scripps Howard National Spelling Bee. The practice list for the 1999 contest included more than one hundred weather terms including: ombrometer and pluviosity. (ombrometer is a fancy technical word for rain gage, and pluviosity means a time or place characterized by a lot of rainfall). The 1993 winning word was kamikaze which became associated with the suicide pilots in World War II but actually means "divine wind" in Japanese. The following year, the winning word was antediluvian, a term meaning "extremely ancient or antiquated and derived from references to those times prior to Noah's Flood, usually used in geology but at times used in discussions of paleoclimatology.
The last word in "Last Word" will be one weather word I ran across in a poem (the reference to which I have lost) that struck me as the highlight of weather words: angrywindscream.
To Purchase Notecard,
Now Available! Order Today!
The BC Weather Book: