Linguist, lexicographer, writer, editor, broadcaster

A Sense of Snow

My latest column has been published in the Malaysia Star.

Folks from those parts of the world—or even the parts of the United States—that have only known warm climates have a hard time getting a handle on snow, even after a few winters where snow is common.

So it occurs to me—as I stare out my window here in New York City at 11 inches of the white stuff, as the weathercasters (those people paid to predict the weather) sometimes like to call it—that a glossary of some of the more interesting snow language would not go amiss.

A big snowstorm that dumps a lot of snow fast can be called a thump snow, because it seems so sudden that you can imagine you might hear a sound like a dropped box of books.

A monstrously large snowstorm deserves its own name, like those given to hurricanes. One that swept across Canada earlier this winter was called Snowmageddon and the Snowpocalypse.

Snowmageddon is the word “snow” plus part of the word “Armageddon”, a battle scene marked in Christian theology as a precursor to the Day of Judgment, in which the sins of all people are counted.

Snowpocalypse, similarly, is the word “snow” plus the word “apocalypse”, predicted in the Christian Bible as the final destruction of the world.

Both words, “Armageddon” and “apocalypse”, are often used trivially to refer to something serious or dangerous and both often lend part of themselves to other words to indicate something disastrous.

That’s not to say that thundersnow (a snowstorm accompanied by thunder) and blizzards (severe snowstorms that make it impossible to see very far or to survive very long out of doors) aren’t scary. They are. Either one can whisk your courage right away.

But we handle large snowfalls all the same, with snow shovels and snow plows, vehicles—sometimes garbage trucks with large, long blades affixed to their fronts—that push snow off the roads, mittens and gloves, hats and scarves, and lots of hot drinks.

Sometimes, snow plows perform echelon plowing, in which several line up like geese in a flying-V formation, each pushing the snow a little further off the roadway than the ones in front of it.

Drivers of vehicles that have to travel in the snow might hang iron or chain up. That is, they put specially made metal chains on their tyres so that they can have added traction on the slippery roads.

Of course, snow isn’t all a chore. A day off from school or work is sometimes given because snow makes it difficult to travel. This is simply called a snow day.

If you have a snow day, you might hit the slopes, meaning you might go skiing, for which all you need are two boards strapped to your feet and a death wish (usually meaning a desire to die, but here a joking way of referring to someone’s desire to do fun but dangerous things).

But there’s also snowboarding, which is like skateboarding (or surfing) and skiing combined; snowski, which is basically skiing with just one board strapped to your foot; and snowboardcross, a mix between snowboarding and competitive off-road bicycling.

Of course, for some people, a day on the slopes isn’t a day off from work but a day at work. Professional or competitive skiers look for hero snow, snow so perfect that it makes the skiing look magical (especially if they are professional skiers in competitions).

They might also seek out hero bumps, small moguls (bumps created by lots of previous skiers) that make it easy for them to perform high-scoring moves. They might also look for windlips, snow that has been built-up into an inviting wave-like shape by the wind. You can ski right off of these straight into the air.

If you’re not a professional—or you are but your abilities aren’t up to snuff (good enough)—you might end up in what is jokingly called a snow sale or a yard sale. You will fall and everything—boots, skis, ski poles, clothes, body, etc—will be spread across the snowy slopes.

It’s called that because it looks kind of like a yard sale, when people sell their belongings from the lawn or yard in front of their homes.

Of course, you can always go snowmobiling, too. (Not in New York City, mind you.) In Alaska and parts of Canada, they call them snow machines, but they’re the same vehicle, a small, motorised transport with tracks in the back—like those on a military tank—rather than wheels. You sit astride them like a child riding on his papa’s back.

One way to stay entertained with a snowmobile is to do what is called highmarking. It’s a dangerous pastime of driving the machine straight up a steep incline to see how far you can go.

Unfortunately, if a snowmachiner (someone who rides a snow machine) goes too far, the machine will overturn and it can fall on them and kill them. Not recommended.

Sliding around on a cardboard box can be fun, too. And safer.

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Grant Barrett