Hans Christian Andersen, Belford, Clarke & Company, 1889, “Fairy Land”

This summer’s mid-Atlantic heat wave fired up the jetstream, which was pushed southward by warming Arctic conditions. This unleashed devastating downpours on Britain. In Edinburgh in July there were monsoons. I saw the driver of a double-decker bus advise the chauffeur of the queen’s magnificent maroon Bentley to turn back and take a different route to her majesty’s Edinburgh residence at Holyrood House Palace, because of deep flooding near the park. And as the rain bucketed down I noticed raindrops hitting the road so hard that they shattered and bounced back up in little ring patterns like tiny figures in white tutus dancing on the dark road surface.

You might think it unlikely that any language would have a single word meaning “visual effect of raindrops on dark road surface shattering and bouncing in white ring pattern visually suggestive of of tiny dancers.” But one language does. It’s not Irish or Scots Gaelic; not an indigenous language of some incredibly rainy area like Meghalaya or Babinda; not one of those Eskimoan languages said to have a huge profusion of words for snow.

The language in question is standard 20th-century Southern British English, at least as spoken in my mother’s family in Surrey, and the word is fairies.

I do not mention this at random. I have a reason.

I have repeatedly argued (in lectures, blog posts, and the title essay in my book The Great Eskimo Vocabulary Hoax, supporting and elaborating a point originally made by the anthropologist Laura Martin) that the unsupported factoid about snow terminology in Eskimoan languages is a myth. It has spread through social-science lectures and magazine articles like an urban legend, or an unintended hoax perpetrated by anthropologists and linguists on each other—and on the general public, which loves stories about how in language X there is no word for Y. With the Eskimo snow-word myth they get what they crave.

Because I have mocked people’s credulity on this point, people sometimes send me lists of Eskimo snow words, with a sort of “told-you-so” attitude. But the lists only underline my point.

The Comparative Eskimo Dictionary does record three proto-Eskimoan roots for snow: qaniɣ ‘falling snow’, aniɣu ‘fallen snow’, and apun ‘snow on the ground’. (The /ɣ/ symbol represents a voiced velar fricative as heard between the vowels in a Low German pronunciation of sagen.) But English also has at least three: snow (the general term), slush (partially melted snow on the ground), sleet (mixed rain and snow falling). In fact West Greenlandic Inuit has only two of the three (aniɣ is absent), so that puts English ahead.

You could throw in pirhuq “snowstorm”; but then English could counter with the word blizzard. How to make Inuit win?

To develop their longer lists, people pad them with (i) words that don’t refer to snow at all (like siku “sea ice”), and (ii) words that are clearly derived from stems already on the list (like qanipalaat “feathery clumps of falling snow,” obviously from qaniɣ), and (iii) words that are in origin nothing to do with snow but may be used metaphorically to refer to snowy phenomena.

Illustrating (iii), I have seen kavisik reported as meaning “snow that has been pockmarked by rain and refrozen with a pattern in it like herring scales”; but it’s simply a derivative of the root meaning “herring.” An online article by Larry Kaplan of the Alaska Native Language Center notes that natirvik gets cited as meaning “for snow to drift along the ground,” but it’s just a derivative of natiq “floor” or “bottom”: The basic meaning has nothing to do with snow.

Fairies is a development of type (iii). It’s not a rain word, that’s my point. It’s a metaphor based on a word denoting the mythical tiny people at the bottom of your garden with the wings and diphanous dresses. The dancing raindrop patterns look like that, hence the name.

Any language can similarly develop a term for a specific meteorological phenomenon. Snow terms derived by metaphorization in Eskimoan languages should surprise us no more than fairies does. Nothing unusual or exotic is involved; there is no lesson for us regarding language, thought, and culture. Move along, folks; nothing to see here.

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