Behind the Dictionary

Lexicographers Talk About Language

Snownados in Hothlanta: The World of Weather Blends

In just about every city, people repeat variations of the saying, "If you don't like the weather, wait an hour." And for good reason. Weather is an ever-changing — and, on our stressed-out globe — increasingly extreme phenomenon. Weather never stops: it just keeps shifting and mutating into something else.

That sounds like another natural phenomenon I know: language. Dig it or despise it, language always changes, as new words are born and old words mutate, fade away, or take on new meanings. Those changes happen lightning-fast these days, as the high-pressure system of the Internet accelerates word changes (such as the grammatical shift that caused the American Dialect Society to select because as 2013's Word of the Year.) The Internet is pretty much the global warming of language.

From a lexical standpoint, this winter will probably be remembered mostly for polar vortex, but the language vortex continues to produce the most common type of new word: the blend, as epitomized by Chicago's chilly nickname Chiberia. In a related development, the -nado suffix that caught on after the 2013 Syfy movie Sharknado continues to be popular. Whether we're discussing the real weather that freezes our pipes or the metaphorical storms that get on our nerves, we can't resist word-blending. In other words, language is the ultimate snownado.

Unfortunately, the recent American Dialect Society meeting in Minneapolis was not kind to -nado. Sharknado was voted Most Unnecessary word, while -nado did not even get nominated for the new category of Most Productive; that's a shame. In fact, -nado is right up there with -shaming, -splaining, and -elfie when it comes to the giddy production of new words. These words fit into a few categories.

Some are direct plays on Sharknado, a "so bad it's good" disaster movie featuring, you guessed it, a tornado of sharks. That cinema classic was definitely in the minds of writers who coined words such as Boat-nado, Ratnado, and the corny Pi-rat-nado in relation to the discovery of a "ghost ship filled with cannibal rats." The movie also seems like an influence on an artwork that could only have been called a Guitar-nado. Elsewhere, someone combined the polar vortex and sharknado into an adorable polar nado, as in tornado of polar bears. Considering the disappearance of polar bears' habitat, I'm afraid that image may soon be as real as a recent catnado.

Some folks use the suffix for metaphorical storms, such as the behavior of a toddler: "A toddler-nado hit my parents living room earlier today. Toys were thrown fun was had and no one was injured." After looking at the picture with that tweet, I take back the word metaphorical. Perhaps due to fatigue with gate, some have called New Jersey Governor Chris Christie's traffic scandal bridge-nado. I'm no Al Roker, but I've also spotted poodlenado, beardnado, thongnado, and sushinado. To paraphrase a classic Batman story, "Sushinado would be a good death."

Of course, some uses are actually weather-related, like snownado, which is a word for a winter waterspout. Here's a video of a snownado over Lake Superior from this past December. Such snow-word blends have become routine in recent years. VT executive producer Ben Zimmer was quickly on the scene in 2010, like a freezing cable news reporter, when snowpocalypse and snowmageddon buried the English language. Since then, snow word blends have become as common as wind chill and dog booties: people love coining words like snownami, blizzaster, and snowtastrophe.

In light of the recent winter storms and ungodly temperatures, word blending has spread to city names. As a Chicago resident, I appreciate the popular word Chiberia, which was coined in early January, when the polar vortex sent temperatures down to -16, with the wind chill dropping to what meteorologists call "Kill me now." I'm from Buffalo, NY and not easily impressed by winter weather, but this has been one for the books: the books of evil. During the days when Chiberia was coined and spreading, I dearly wished I had trained my dog to use a litter box.

Moving on from Earth for a moment, Hoth — for the young or insufficiently nerdy — is the snow planet featured in The Empire Strikes Back. As Atlanta has been uncharacteristically beaten down by Father Winter, the name Hothlanta has emerged. Hothlanta is a delightful alteration (and antonym) of Hotlanta. Some residents of Hothlanta have had some fun with the snow, turning their buried environment into a Star Wars set. Other word blends are less catchy and enduring, such as Atlanta's alternate name Atlaska and the painful Bostarctica, for a chilly Boston. I doubt anyone in Buffalo is trying to come up with a winter blend: that would be redundant, like Hothlaska.

If you're all blended out, I sympathize. Like anything new, new words (even words as adorable as doberhuahua, which stole the show during the Super Bowl) can annoy as much as they amuse. Similarly, asking "Cold enough for ya?" is clichéd and maddening. So what's a person to say in these chilly times?

As a reminder that it's possible to talk about Mother Nature's punishing cold without the use of blends, please enjoy this collection of regionalisms from the Dictionary of American Regional English (published in Mental Floss). And let's all hope temperatures are soon warmer than a brass toilet seat in the Yukon.

Click here to read more articles from Behind the Dictionary.

Mark Peters is a language columnist, lexicographer, and humorist who has written for Esquire, The Funny Times, New Scientist, Psychology Today, Salon, and Slate. He contributes to OUPblog and writes the Best Joke Ever column for McSweeney's. You can read Mark's own jokes on Twitter, such as, "I play by my own rules, which is probably why no one comes to my board game parties anymore." Click here to read more articles by Mark Peters.