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The origins of weather words
Mar 27, 2014
In 1911, German-American anthropologist, Franz Boaz (1858-1942), said the Inuit had four different words for snow. Soon, these four words escalated into 400 words via word-of-mouth and media distortion.
The Inuit have no more words for snow than anyone else. Professor Geoffrey K. Pullam (1945-) of the University of California Santa Cruz has called this urban myth, “The Great Inuit Vocabulary Hoax.”
English has four basic weather words: snow, rain, wind and fog. However, we’ve created much new language to expand on these — flurry, downpour, breeze and mist, for example. We’ve also added variations like gale, blizzard, sleet and smog to describe particular types of weather.
Snow entered Old English as snaw from the Old Teutonic, snaiwoz. Snow, spelled “snow,” was recorded by 1530. It has always meant, “The congealed vapour of the atmosphere falling in flakes.”
Even in Old English it carried the additional meaning of, “whiteness.”
Rain (1459), from the Old English,  regnian, is probably from the Common Teutonic, regn. Its meaning has always been, “Water condensed from atmospheric vapour, falling in drops.”
Wind was called wind immediately upon entering Old English from Old Teutonic where it was windoz. It may have emerged from the Gothic word for “to blow” — waian. Its earliest mention is 1523. The dictionary meaning of wind is, “A movement or current of air blowing from one of the four cardinal points of the compass.”
Fog, from 1544, is defined as, “Thick mist or watery vapour suspended in the atmosphere at or near the earth’s surface.” This word came from the Danish, fog, meaning “mist.”
Many weather words incorporate “storm” — rainstorm, windstorm, thunderstorm, electrical storm, snowstorm — and different types have their own names: hurricane, typhoon, tempest, cyclone, tornado, and blizzard, for example.
Blizzard is our most interesting storm-word because we don’t know its origin. Oxford suggests a U.S. origin, dating its use as a word meaning, “A furious blast of frost-wind and blinding snow,” to 1870, but says blizzard was used as early as 1829 for, “A sharp blow or knock.”
Tornado, from the Spanish, tornada (return; turning about), originates in the Latin, tornare (to turn). Tornado was originally applied (1556) to violent tropical thunderstorms at sea.
Tempest, Late Middle English, is from the Old French, tempeste, from the Latin, tempestam (storm) and is dated to 1532. It means, “A violent storm of wind usually accompanied by rain, hail, or snow.”
Typhoon (1588) is from the Arabic, taifa (to turn around). There’s some speculation that it’s from the Chinese, tai fung (big wind). It’s defined as, “A violent storm or tempest occurring at sea.”
Hurricane (1555) is from Caribbean Spanish, huracan. It means, “A violent windstorm or cyclone of the West Indies.”
Cyclone (1848) is probably from the Greek, kukloma (to coil). It’s the term used for all atmospheric disturbances in which the wind’s course is circular or swirling.
Storm (1530) is from the Old English, styrman, from Old Teutonic, sturmoz (storm).
And smog? First used in 1905, smog is a “portmanteau word,” meaning it consists of elements from more than one word — sm from “smoke,” and, og from “fog.” It’s defined as, “Fog that has become polluted with smoke.”