blizzard

Snow had fallen, snow on snow, 
Snow on snow

Christina Rossetti’s vision of the bleak mid-winter is one that quite a few people are seeing just now, including many who haven’t seen it in a long time. Temperatures have plunged throughout the heart of North America and snow has fallen on snow on snow. It’s a blizzard.

The defining feature of a blizzard, for most of us these days, is snow. Lots and lots and lots of snow. Great blizzards are often memorialized with photographs of snow by the yard: cars buried to the roofs and streets and sidewalks carved out between human-high snowbanks. If there is wind, so much the worse; you are trapped by the weather, and power may be knocked out. You most certainly should not try to travel, although once the storm has passed you may want to go outside to shovel, and sled, and shovel, and ski, and shovel.

But why this word blizzard? Why the zz? What is so buzzy about snow? We can understand that blitz is a great word for lightning, fast and zappy; we can think that lizard and buzzard are acceptable words for unpleasant hot-climate creatures; we can imagine that a wizard has some magic, and whizz is almost as onomatopoeic as buzz; but snow is soft and quiet. Unless you have too much caffeine or a migraine, you can’t even hear it falling. The wind that brings it, yes, perhaps, but…

No but. It’s the wind that brings us this word, the whizzing of the windspeed and the blowing hard – especially the blow. In fact, before blizzard was a word for weather, it was a word in some parts of America for a sharp blow or shot, probably formed on the basis of sound symbolism (think of not just blow but blast, blister, bluster, and blunt). It was in the wicked winter of 1881 that its use for hard winter weather was introduced to the broader American readership, as the New York Nation noted: “The hard weather has called into use a word which promises to become a national Americanism, namely ‘blizzard’. It designates a storm (of snow and wind) which men cannot resist away from shelter.”

The definition of blizzard in the Oxford English Dictionary, first included in 1887, is “A furious blast of frost-wind and blinding snow, in which man and beast frequently perish; a ‘snow-squall’.” It was that condition that Robert Falcon Scott had in mind in 1913 when, two weeks before his own death on his ill-fated Antarctic expedition, he wrote, speaking of his companion Captain Oates, “It was blowing a blizzard. He said, ‘I am just going outside and may be some time.’ He went out into the blizzard and we have not seen him since.” 

And it is, really, that condition that I have always thought of with the word blizzard. When I grew up in southern Alberta, snow, even snow on snow on snow, was not a rare thing, but you had to watch out for the times when it was not only snowing a lot but blowing so hard you couldn’t see – or do anything else sensibly outside. And the zz seemed somehow appropriate, not because the wind buzzed (it did not; it howled and roared) but because it was hard, like the angles in zz, and it was uncommon, like the letter z, and it was the last thing you wanted, just as the letter z – also called the izzard ­– is the last thing in the alphabet.

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