After this last snow, which was really at least three different kinds of snow—a piled and mixed concoction of heavy, wet cold covered with a layer of icy rain covered with a fine sparkling loose powder that made walking through it both strenuous and wonderfully satisfying in the way that the first few bites of cereal can be before the milk gets ahold of things—I get the whole Eskimo-hundred-names-for-snow thing.
Which of course is a cliche and an overstatement and maybe even mildly offensive (there is no one Eskimo language because “Eskimo” is a loose term for the Inuit and Yupik living in Alaska, Canada, Greenland, and Siberia who speak a variety of languages and dialects), except for the way that it can make you think about how we live in the world.
A short linguistics lesson: The Eskimo languages are polysynthetic, meaning they combine a limited set of roots and endings to create an unlimited set of words. Rather than having dozens of word for snow, the words tell what the snow does. Action snow! So it’s not so much about what you call it as what it does or what it’s used for or how it piles up on corners or feels underneath your boots. It’s a way of keeping the language efficient, instead of creating a new term each time one is needed. My German-Mennonite blood can certainly appreciate that.
A few examples (primarily Yup’ik and Inuit):
qanik: snow falling (snow in the air)
qanipalaat: feathery clumps of falling snow
aputi: snow on the ground
pukak: crystalline snow on the ground (the kind that dazzles in the sun)
muruaneq: soft deep snow
qetrar: for snow to crust
utvak: snow carved in block (good for igloos or bun-in-the-ovens)
A few example (in the Canton urban vein):
phantom snow: light, usually crystalline snow, the source of which is inexplicable (snow dust off trees? blue sky sorcery? sign of yet unseen inclement weather, blown in by a curiously strong west wind?)
sidewalk snow wall: snow that builds tunnel-like walls as a result of shoveling/snowblowing several snowfalls
snow blow, also called snow smoke (Jonah’s term): the snow shooting out of our neighbor’s thirty-year-old snow blower as he generously clears our driveway and front walk, saving my back and sanity
catch-you-by-surprise snow: unexpected or under-forcasted snow (of the sort that even after snowing for several hours, the snow plow still hasn’t made a single run down the major streets and/or highways, and of course you’re late to school/church/etc.)
snow plow snow: variations of white/grey/black (usually HEAVY) snow generated by city snow plows that flies off the plow blade in boulder-like constructions that must be shoveled off street side sidewalks multiple times as it gains weight and grime
cigarette butt snow: wabi-sabi snow that manages to be dingily lovely as it bespeaks human presence
(For a tongue-in-cheek list of Eskimo words for snow, which includes my favorite—tlarin: snow that can be sculpted into the delicate corsages Eskimo girls pin to their whale parkas at prom time—go HERE.)