Tag Archives: nival


Who can rival the nival scenery of the True North Strong and Free? There’s no place like a snow place. It’s not simply that it brings the curious combination of frigid and fluffy (never mind the snirt), nor that it has the shocking smooth brightness (again, skip the snirt), nor that you can do winter sports on it, though all of these are certainly virtues.

No, it’s that it evinces the evanescence of scenery itself. I can walk down a snowy street and know not only that it will look entirely different in the warmer seasons, but that it will look at least somewhat different even the next day. Snow blows and drifts and piles up and melts away… water, the stuff of life, is become a sort of butterfly, but even less permanent.

I’m ambivalent about this word nival. It is exemplary, showing the drift from its Latin origin nivalis in both form and pronunciation, and it has its uses: it can mean ‘snowy, made of snow, made in snow’ (like niveous but a bit shorter and without the beauty lotion overtones); it can relate to a region of perpetual snow (we have some of that in Canada, but I have no photos, not having visited there); it can relate to “the falling, accumulation, or melting of snow,” to quote the OED (in other words, relating to nivation, and not only by invitation). But it rhymes with rival, and also of course revival and survival, and that “long i” just somehow doesn’t seem… on the level. At least to me.

But that doesn’t make it invalid – just alive. We do those sound changes in English, and yet you can look at a word and see the shape of what was there before. And words keep changing, and also coming and going. And we’re not out of the woods yet with this one – tell me if you’ve ever used it!

It’s fun to think, isn’t it, that the same stuff that can support naval vessels, and stretch beyond our eyes to the horizon, can blow and drift, pile up on cars and be made into balls for handy tossing? It’s all a matter of phase. In other days or other ways, it’s also steam, and clouds. And life in places that lack this version of water is somehow… incomplete. We will always have that rival season summer in its turn, but when the streets and beaches are warm and dry, I sometimes catch myself picturing what they have been – and will be again – in the nival time of the year.