Le cul entre les deux chaises

An American Spaniard in France or: How I Learned to Make an Ass of Myself in Three Cultures

Word Mystery: blizzard / tempête (de neige) / nevasca


2012 Nemo snow dog 1

Happy dog in Nemo snow, February 2013

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 / nevascaBorrasca 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!

2013 Nemo snow dog 2

So much snow left untrampled! My OCD combined with my snow obsession means this photo is the best and worst thing I’ve seen this month.


Author: le cul en rows

I'm an American Spaniard, living in France. I like to tell stories.

5 thoughts on “Word Mystery: blizzard / tempête (de neige) / nevasca

  1. We do use the word blizzard in Québec and it is an accepted word by the Office de la langue française. I read in a Wikepedia article (in French) that the word had a German origin but they didn’t mention from which word.

    We also use Rafale de neige, Bourrasque de neige et Poudrerie to define various types of snow storms. Obviously, we also use the generic term of Tempête de neige as well. Poudrerie might be the closest to blizzard.

    • I don’t speak German (it’s next on my language list), but the Wiki entry seems to suggest that blizzard is a North American term: “Der Blizzard ist ein starker Schneesturm, der hauptsächlich in Nordamerika auftritt.”

      This word has me more puzzled than most as it seems to have arrived, fully formed, like some mythical beast. Part of the mystery must stem from the fact that the indigenous peoples who originally experienced this kind of weather were all wiped out and replaced by people whose native languages didn’t have a term for what was happening. If I could travel back in time, it would be to figure out things like this.

  2. Love this one. Oddly enough the Italian word (tormenta or bufera di neve) is more similar to the French in this case whereas the last week’s example was more similar to the Spanish. Even more strange the Italian word for storm (tempesta), which is more similar to tempête, is not – to my knowledge – used to define blizzards. I may be wrong though.

    Oh Latin languages…

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