Walking in a winter wonderland . . . of words
Where I live in New York State, about two hours north of the Pennsylvania border, the transition from one season to the next is rarely (if ever) coincidental with the astronomical designation applied to it. Of the four annual calendar dates of seasonal shift, none is more laughable to us in the Leatherstocking Region than the winter solstice. The idea that a particular and predictable planetary position marks the beginning of winter is understandably lost on those who have raked leaves in the morning and shoveled snow in the afternoon on the same October day more than a few times.
Do you take this climate, for better or for worse?
In the United States, which boasts a remarkably diverse climatic range, millions of us inhabit the country’s Northeast and Midwest regions, where winters can indeed be long, white, and cold. Some northerners truly enjoy the winter months, but for many, the endurance of winter is more a love-hate sort of thing, and for another many, it’s a matter of no love at all. But here we are, in it for the annual duration, for better or worse.
Though the cost of heating my drafty old Victorian home will render my teeth chattering well into April, I cannot betray my lifelong delight in the natural beauty of a winter’s day. Falling snow is a marvel of nature, and the icing of the evergreens is a stroke of divine genius.
From whence cometh the winter words?
Winter is also a marvelous time for words, as a number of them were devised for winter alone. Some have long lexical histories. Others are comparatively new. The next time you say, “I’m freezing,” for instance, think how long it has taken fellow shivering speakers of English to give us the word freeze as we now know it. From as far back as the 10th century, we find the word “freoseth.” By 1325, it would appear in lyric poetry as: “When the forst freseth, muche chele he byd” (note: forst means “frost”; chele is “chill”). In 1837, Washington Irving (best known for The Legend of Sleepy Hollow and Rip Van Winkle) wrote, “A road in the wet snow, which, should it afterwards freeze, would be sufficiently hard to bear the horses.” And “freeze” was here to stay.
Another winter word with a journey through English is winter itself. From a 9th-century citation in the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), we read of a “wintra ceald,” and in an excerpt from the book of Isaiah in a 1382 Wycliffite Bible, “Alle the bestes of erthe vp on hym shul dwelle al wynter.” (Remember this the next time someone rails against changes in the English language!) By the 1550s, the word would appear as the familiar “winter.”
The skater’s delight and driver’s dilemma known as ice has evolved as well. From citations beginning with the Old English epic poem Beowulf through a religious treatise in 1620, we find ise, aes, is, yse, ys, ysz, and yce. It may not have been until the late 1700s that “ice” would win the day as the standardized spelling.
The noun ski, from Old Norse skith (stick of wood), had to wait until the mid-18th century to ski into the English lexicon, according to current OED research, and the Norwegian-derived slalom (literally ‘sloping track’) seems to have arrived much later, presumably in the 1920s. Even more recent is that mogul you sail over—although its roots aren’t nearly as youthful, having come from the Austrian Mugel (hillock), which in the 1400s referred to a hunk of bread.
The true American among the winter words is blizzard. Its original meaning (as evidenced from the 1820s) seems to be “a violent blow”—but not by wind, snow, or any other phenomenon of weather. In 1834, the legendary Davy Crockett wrote, “A gentleman at dinner asked me for a toast; and supposing he meant to have some fun at my expense, I concluded to go ahead, and give him and his likes a blizzard.”
The earliest known sighting of blizzard as “a severe and windy snowstorm” comes from Kansas, in a diary entry dated December 1, 1859: “A blizzard had come upon us about midnight . . . . Shot 7 horses that were so chilled could not get up.” Fortunately, over the last century and a half, the advances in forecasting and coping strategies have made our relationship with the weather somewhat less brutal.
Fast-forward to the 21st century, and winter words hit the commercial jackpot
In 2013, Disney scaled the box-office Alps with its end-of-year blockbuster Frozen—popularly acclaimed as the ultimate eye feast in the category of wintry animation. But it isn’t just the visual that captures the enchantment of winter. The dialogue is rich with “icy allusion,” and a number of the songs are especially lavish with the language of winter. When Queen Elsa sings, “My power flurries through the air into the ground / My soul is spiraling in frozen fractals all around” (from the song “Let It Go”), one might ask, “Has the ambience of ‘brrr‘ ever been expressed more beautifully?”