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Saturday, January 23, 2016

Of Blizzards and Snowzillas


A furious blast of frost-wind and blinding snow, in which man and beast frequently perish

Such is the rather poetic definition for "blizzard" (written in 1887, when #Blizzard2016 or any other hashtag was undreamt of) in the Oxford English Dictionary.
The origin of the word "blizzard" is a mystery. Before it started to be used of violent snowstorms in the 1850s, it was being used in North America to mean a violent blow. 
1856   Sacramento City (Calif.) Item   When some true archer, from the upper tier, Gave him a ‘blizzard’ on the nearest ear.
The OED speculates an onomatopoeic origin, mentioning such words as blow, blast, blister, and bluster. By the 1870s the word was being applied to snowstorms in the western US and Canada.  Not surprisingly for those of us who grew up in its tender climes, the first reference to a blizzard in Canadian sources is describing the weather in Manitoba in February 1875:
The glass measured -38 last night... The boss blizzard of the season howled over Manitoba on Sunday, and kept people from going to church and pleasure driving.
Technically, though, a blizzard is not just any big snowstorm.

For the US National Weather Service, a blizzard requires snow and/or blowing snow reducing visibility to 1 / 4 mile or less for 3 hours or longer and sustained winds of 35 mph or greater or frequent gusts to 35 mph or greater.

"Only THREE hours? Pfft!" says Environment Canada, which issues a blizzard warning when winds of 40 km/hr or greater are expected to cause widespread reductions in visibility to 400 metres or less, due to blowing snow, or blowing snow in combination with falling snow, for at least 4 hours. Anything less than that, and Canadians, it is well known, will be out barbecuing.

It is unlikely that the meteorological authorities in either Canada or the US will ever provide a technical definition of "snowzilla", a word which has been with us since early 2000. For more on the -zilla suffix, see this post :  http://www.merriam-webster.com/words-at-play/-Zilla

And we must not forget "snowmageddon", which came along in 2005 and is still going strong. 

Happy shovelling!

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Canada's Word Lady, Katherine Barber is an expert on the English language and a frequent guest on radio and television. She was Editor-in-Chief of the Canadian Oxford Dictionary. Her witty and informative talks on the stories behind our words are very popular. Contact her at wordlady.barber@gmail.com to book her for speaking engagements; she can tailor her talks to almost any subject. She is also available as an expert witness for lawsuits.