The language of weather

The weather, my nation’s favourite topic.  Where would British small talk be without it?!

But weather, of course, provides more than a polite interchange between strangers waiting for buses.  A world without weather would be very strange indeed.  A world without weather would mean a world without plants so it wouldn’t be a world with humans in.

Scientific definitions

Before we get onto the more well used weather language, I want to take a look at the scientific language.  A lot of words are used in weather forecasts which we just sort of get used to and don’t really think about.  Some of these are everyday words which have specific meanings to meteorologists and some are words we don’t tend to find outside weather.

We have the Beaufort wind scale (more about Beaufort later this month) which uses fairly common language to describe and quantify wind levels.  Here we find “calm”, “light breeze”, “near gale”, “violent storm” etc, all used in day to day conversations to mean different things but when used in a weather forecasting or scientific setting, have very precise meanings.  The same is true of timescales in weather forecasts.  Imminent means expected within six hours, soon is six to twelve hours and later is more than twelve hours away.

I’m mentioning this use of language as it might be interesting to incorporate into some creative writing.  You could do some interesting playing around with meanings and mixing the scientific, precise definition with the colloquial one.

Weather metaphors

There are lots of weather metaphors, particularly used when it comes to discussing someone’s mood, eg chill out, he stormed out, face like thunder, got a frosty response…  You can be showered with gifts, have a foggy memory, be hit by a hail of bullets or be the sunshine of someone’s life.

You could find difficult relationships start to thaw as you enter your sunset or twilight years, but you could also find yourself in a bit of a dry spell… Unless you’re lucky enough for someone to take a shine to you and have a whirlwind romance! Of course, relationships might start to drift away as you enter the autumn of your life.  But your seasoned wisdom from weathering the storm may have taught you to make hay when the sun shines.  And there is no longer any need to save for a rainy way, you can chill out, shoot the breeze and have your head in the clouds without consequence!

See what I mean about there being lots of weather metaphors?!  Whilst I have obviously, intentionally, gone over the top in that last paragraph, bits of it could have been read without realising that.

Regional weather

One of the really beautiful things about weather is the regional words.  Often these words spring up because of specific weather phenomena which don’t occur elsewhere, or at least not nationwide.  For example, people living by the coast or making their living at sea will need more words for sea related weather than someone in a desert.  The former group need to know about different kinds of storms, different sorts of rain as they will affect their live and livelihoods whereas the second group of people have much less use for those distinctions as they won’t experience them.

A yowe-tremmle—literally a “ewe-tremble”—is an old Scottish dialect word for a week of unusually cold or rainy weather beginning in the final few days in June that is literally cold enough to make the season’s freshly-sheared sheep “tremmle,” or shiver.
Mental Floss

Robert MacFarlane’s book Landmarks is great for looking at regional words.  He looks beyond weather and compiles glossaries of words and phrases that relate to nature and tells us where they come from.  Another person to turn to for regional or specialised words is Suzy Dent.  Both have twitter accounts which shares a wide range of lost or little known words and their meanings.

Ammil is a Devon term for the thin film of ice that lacquers all leaves, twigs and grass blades when a freeze follows a partial thaw, and that in sunlight can cause a whole landscape to glitter. It is thought to derive from the Old English ammel, meaning “enamel”, and is an exquisitely exact word for a fugitive phenomenon I have several times seen, but never before named. Shetlandic has a word, pirr, meaning “a light breath of wind, such as will make a cat’s paw on the water”.

The variant English terms for icicle – aquabob (Kent), clinkerbell and daggler (Hampshire), cancervell (Exmoor), ickle
(Yorkshire), tankle (Durham) and shuckle (Cumbria) – form a tinkling poem of their own. 

Robert MacFarlane

Looking at Yorkshire, where I live but wasn’t born, we have a lot of interesting words which isn’t surprising when you think about the size of Yorkshire.  Because I wasn’t born here and didn’t grow up here, I’ve had to turn to other sources to find local weather words and whilst they are allegedly used in Yorkshire, that doesn’t mean to say they are used in just Yorkshire!

  • Shockle – a lump of ice or icicle
  • Blatter – puddle
  • Blashy – wet weather
  • Maftin’ – hot and clammy weather
  • Nithered – very cold
  • Gliddered – covered with a thin layer of ice
  • Siling – raining heavily
  • Clashy – stormy
  • Dowly – dull, gloomy
  • Parky – chilly
  • Puckly – cloudy
  • Rawk – cold and misty

and my personal favourite

  • Snow bones – the patches of snow seen stretching along ridges, in ruts or in furrows after a partial thaw

There are lots of lovely regional weather words and I’d like to hear yours!

How we talk about weather

“Cold winter wind along the walls of the chapel. Not howling, not moaning, not dismal.  Can there be anything mournful about the wind? It is innocent, and without sorrow.  It has no regrets. Wind is a strong child enjoying his play, amazed at his own strength, gentle, inexhaustible and pure.”
Thomas Merton

How we talk about weather reflects the ideals and values of a society.  Weather is not a neutral topic, just listen to the weather forecast.  Hot, dry weather uses positive language whereas cold, wet weather uses negative language eg threat of rain, invasion of clouds.  Even if the reporter themselves doesn’t actually like the sun and much prefers the rain.

This way of speaking is part of our social vocabulary and that in turn affects how people feel about the weather.  For most people, rain is not a major problem, you grab a coat or umbrella and you’re fine, but to listen to how people talk of rain you’d think it was the end of the world!  We have stories in our mind, built by the language that us used and they sit there mostly unchallenged and shape your emotions and your thoughts.

For more about ecolinguistics, have a look at The Stories We Live By, a free online course.

2 thoughts on “The language of weather”

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