February 13, 2013 Word Mystery: blizzard / tempête (de neige) / nevasca
Word mysteries are where words in languages that I know don’t correspond to each other at all despite those languages often sharing lexical histories. These words are both mystifying (why are they different?) and annoying (why must you be different?!).
A big winter storm hitting the Eastern seaboard of the US meant another chance for me to lament that I don’t live in a place with more snow, but it also got me thinking about how to talk about the white stuff.
EN → blizzard — a severe snowstorm with high winds and low visibility.
ORIGIN early 19th cent. (originally US, denoting a violent blow): of unknown origin.
FR → tempête (de neige) — Tourmente atmosphérique, violente agitation de l’air, souvent accompagnée de pluie, de grêle, d’éclairs, de tonnerre, etc. [Atmospheric turmoil, violent churning of the air, often accompanied by rain, hail, lightning, thunder, etc.]
ORIGIN: Latin tempestas ‘season, weather, storm,’ related to time (tempus)
ES → ventisca / nevasca — Borrasca de viento, o de viento y nieve, que suele ser más frecuente en los puertos y gargantas de los montes. [Squall or blowing snow which tends to occur most frequently in ports and mountain gorges.]
ORIGIN: Both terms above sport suffixes added to nouns to make other nouns. Both are also derived from Latin forms of wind (ventus) ES viento and snow (nix, nivis) ES nieve
Interesting that not even the OED knows where blizzard came from. It must be some kind of onomatopoeia, though I can’t work out how you’d come up with that combination of sounds in the cold.
I also couldn’t find exact translations for blizzard in either French or Spanish. Wikipedia says that French Canadians do say blizzard but that’s clearly due to be surrounded by English speakers. There probably isn’t a native word for it in either language due to lack of need for one. I bet in Scandinavia they’ve got a bunch of snow terminology just like where I grew up. Tonight, I’ll fall asleep thinking of all the different kinds.
Learn something else
You’ve probably heard that Eskimos (Inuits) have more than 500 words for snow. You may have heard that this commonly repeated “fact” isn’t true. It turns out to be more complicated than just a yes/no question. Some Inuit tribes have hundreds of ways of referring to snow but many of the words share a root so academia isn’t sure if they count as different. (I vote yes!)
Another Word Mystery is coming soon to a computer screen near you!