Sketchbook Snapshot: taking a closer look at winter vocabulary

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Though many a northerner might beg to differ with Robert Frost’s somewhat flippant statement – “You can’t get too much winter in the winter” – there is a truth to the poet’s words that became evident when I looked into winter vocabulary.

Wintry word origins

According to etymologyonline.com, the word winter likely derives from a combination of Proto-Germanic, Norse, Dutch, and Gaul words which meant “wet” or “white.” The word snow dates from circa 1300, shares linguistic roots with winter and was alternatively spelled “snew” until the 1700s.

The metaphor “to snow someone under” has 1880s American roots, and “snow job” is a related phrase that became popular among World War II soldiers. Getting snowed under, as has been the case for much of the east coast this past week, typically results from a blizzard – a word whose origin is obscure, although its current meaning became common in the U.S. in the 1880s. It first meant a violent storm or rainstorm or even a “hail of gunfire.”

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French ice?

No rundown of wintry words would be complete without a mention of ice. It, too, shares cultural origins with winter, though it might, way back, even derive from Avestan or Afghan words meaning “frost” or “frosty.” Etymologyonline.com notes, the “modern spelling [of ice] begins to appear in the 1500s” and the site authors speculate the spelling “makes the word look French.”

We can also consider the French/French-Canadian word for a really big river that empties into the sea (la fleuve). In Quebec, ice-breaker ships keep the St. Lawrence River clear for ferry and shipping traffic all winter long. And, while modern understandings of “break the ice” relate to communication, the original sense of clearing a passage in a river dates from the 1580s.

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Much like snow and ice, the fox is an emblem of winter. Its modern name is derived from Proto-Germanic/Dutch origins. In those languages and many others, the creature is named fro its bushy tail, rather than for the cunning or attractiveness which have become associated meanings. Intriguingly, an Algonquian people known in Iroquois as the ‘red fox people’ were know to eastern Canada’s early French settlers as renards.

Let it snow

One source of extensive information about “snowflakes, snow crystals, and other ice phenomena” is snowcrystals.com, run by physics professor Kenneth G. Libbrecht. This website is a fascinating and delightful rabbit hole of tidbits, spectacular photography, and scientific explanations.

For example, Libbrecht explains that it is impossible to define/count all the different types of snowflakes, and that attempts to do so over time have resulted in widely variable numbers. He notes, “In the 1940s the largest classification chart included 41 members. This number jumped to 80 in the 1960s, and recently a new table appeared with 121 different snowflake types.” In his book Ken Libbrecht’s Field Guide to Snowflakes, you’ll find a chart featuring the most common types, which include fanciful snowflake structures such as “fernlike stellar dendrites” and “diamond dust crystals.”

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Snowflakes, technically speaking

Perhaps the most insightful tidbit I found on Libbrecht’s site, however, is the technical definition for a winter word we essentially take for granted: snowflake. Libbrecht, writes,

“When people say ‘snowflake,’ they often mean ‘snow crystal.’ The latter is a single crystal of ice, within which the water molecules are all lined up in a precise hexagonal array. Snow crystals display that characteristic six-fold symmetry we are all familiar with […]. A snowflake, on the other hand, is a more general term. It can mean an individual snow crystal, but it can also mean just about anything that falls from the winter clouds. Often hundreds or even thousands of snow crystals collide and stick together in mid-air as they fall, forming flimsy puff-balls we call snowflakes. Calling a snow crystal a snowflake is fine, like calling a tulip a flower.”

Even an isolated patch of snow…

With words dating back to the 1300s and earlier, and snowflakes named after gems, it’s not hard to see why internationally renowned artist Andy Goldsworthy said, “Even in winter an isolated patch of snow has a special quality.”

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