An article written for someone but got lost in the process and never appeared in print.
By Bob Quarteroni
Alligators in the sewers. The blow-dried bunny. Black market kidneys. Kentucky fried what?
Just a few of the better-known “urban legends,” those outrageous stories that always happen to someone else even while the teller swears the tale is absolutely true. In other words, factual snow jobs.
How pervasive – and believable – urban myths can be when a writer was tasked by editors to do an article on the “hundreds of Eskimo words for snow. Find out what some of the most interesting are and do an article on them.”
Yep, like the drying dog that exploded in the microwave, another urban myth. Called “The Great Inuit Vocabulary Hoax,”it apparently started in 1911 when anthropologist Franz Boaz casually mentioned that the Inuit — he called them “Eskimos” — had four different words for snow. With each succeeding reference in textbooks and the press the number grew to upwards of 400 words.
In fact, “Contrary to popular belief, the Eskimos do not have more words for snow than do speakers of English,” said linguist Steven Pinker in his book, “The Language Instinct.”
396 short of conventional wisdom?
Exactly,” said Susan Sotillo, associate professor of linguistics at Montclair State University in New Jersey: “Pinker is right. There are just four words — some dictionaries say six — to describe snow in Inuktitut: aput, snow on the ground; qana, falling snow; piqsirpoq, drifting snow; and qiumqsuq, snow drift.”
No matter how many words the Inuit have for snow, they don’t have a public safety mission, and that’s what’s really important to the National Weather Service, says David Nicosia, NWS Warning Coordinator Meteorologist stationed in Binghamton – and responsible for Luzerne and surrounding counties.
“We don’t really have different words for different types of snow,” he said. “The only distinction we make is between a wet snow and a powdery ‘dry’ type of snow, and we make that distinction primarily for public safety reasons. Wet snow is the type that can stick to everything and can bring power lines down while light, dry snow can be easily blown around and end up as drifts.
“But we don’t classify snow as crystals versus columns or old versus new,” he said. “For ski resorts, the idea of powder versus granular snow may be important, but we don’t need to know that.”
So NWS meteorologists aren’t preoccupied with infinite varieties of snow?
“Hardly,” Nicosia said. “We are stewards of the tax dollar and we are primarily concerned with keeping the public informed and safe and in providing the best warning service possible. I don’t think people would really want us to study the 400 different types of snow or whatever the Eskimos may use. It’s interesting in a general sort of way, but that’s about all.”
“But we do want to know much water content is in the snow,” he said. That’s important as we consider the possibility of spring flooding. One term we do use is that we refer to the snow pack as ‘ripe.’ When it’s ripe it’s ready to let go of its water. We also make note of the temperature of the snow pack, because that tells us how close it is to melting. So we monitor the temperature, how much water is in the snowpack and if the snowpack is ripe and about to release water into streams and creeks.”
A multitude of words for snow is not an urban legend to Craig Medred, Outdoor Editor for the Anchorage, Alaska, Daily News. He said that he knows lots and lots of words for snow – unfortunately many of them are X-rated.
“Well, it sort of depends on whether you’re counting the words you can use in a family newspaper, or all of the words,” Medred emailed. “When you’re on foot in front of dogs trying to break trail through three feet of unconsolidated powder, there might be more than 400 words for snow. In fact, over the years, I think I’ve even made up some of my own in those circumstances.”