Dept. of Word Lists

The Chilly Vocabulary of Snowpocalypse Season

It's winter time, and for a lot of the country and the world, that means one thing: brrrr.

I'm somewhat of an expert in this area, not just due to living in Chicago, but because I grew up in Buffalo, NY. I was a wee lad during the Paleolithic era of the Blizzard of '77. I was there when six feet of snow fell in five days. I was there when one foot of snow fell in an hour, paralyzing the city. Sometimes I feel like Norse mythology's Laufey, king of the frost giants and father of Loki. Well, except that I have no children or power, and I'm not that big. Otherwise, we're identical.

Though the weather is frightful and freezing and all that, there's no reason to let your vocabulary hibernate: check out these cold- and winter-related words just yearning to get used alongside your ear muffs and Dr. Who scarf.

The Arctic Circle, which contains the North Pole, is the northernmost part of the planet, and (along with the South Pole) is the most consistently cold region, much like tropical areas are the hottest. So if you hear your local meteorologist saying, "Arctic temperatures are on the way," you'd better wear six layers of clothes, whippersnappers.

Gelid comes from the Latin gelidus, "icy, cold, or frosty," from gelum, "frost or intense cold." This adjective describes things that are frigid, frosty, and arctic. January is often the most gelid month. Gelid is also useful for figuratively icy things, like a parent's gelid glare when you come home two hours after your curfew.

This word sounds like the kind of sudden squawk an alarmed bird might make, but there's no feathers to be found: a squall is really a powerful blast of wind. In the winter, squalls — which are similar to gusts, but gustier — can turn a cold day into a frigid, polar, glacial day. Squalls can even turn a snowstorm into a blizzard. The origin of this term isn't known for sure, but an older sense involved a piercing scream. That's a plausible connection. Severe wind often sounds like Mother Nature is howling, and it'll make anyone stuck outside bellow like a banshee too.

When you have a fever or there's an open window, you're very likely to get a chill: a sudden feeling of coldness that makes you chilly and often leads to the shivers. Cold weather can be described as chilly too: anything colder than forty degrees Fahrenheit can easily be considered chilly, depending on the thickness of your coat or the machoness of your temperament. A related term is wind chill: the temperature it actually feels like when you factor in the chilling effect of the wind. This is another cold word that's often applied to people and situations. If two friends have had a falling out, you could say their relationship is chilly.

The original meaning of blizzard, in the early 1800s, referred to a sharp blow of some kind, like a powerful punch from a skilled boxer. That violent sense fits with the winter-related meaning. By the mid-1800s, the word applied to snowstorms that combined heavy snow and powerful winds, leaving everyone in the blizzard's path blind and buried. A much lighter bout of snowfall is called a flurry.

Glacial has a few meanings related to glaciers, which are humongous masses of ice and snow much larger than icebergs. Anything that moves slowly is going at a glacial pace. An older person using a walker is probably moving glacially, though it would be rude to say so. Legal and legislative processes tend to move at a glacial pace too. The other meaning comes from the temperature of glaciers: glacial temperatures are extremely cold. Glacialosity is in the frozen eye of the beholder to some extent, but few would describe a 38 degree day as glacial. But -2? That's glacial enough to attract polar bears.

This word applies to many situations that are not, as they say, a picnic in the park. A government described as a brutal regime is repressive, possibly imprisoning and even murdering its citizens with no reasonable cause. In boxing or mixed martial arts, a brutal fight leaves one fighter — or both — beaten to a pulp. When it comes to weather, brutalism involves weather extremes. You could describe a 100-degree day as brutal, but it's more common to describe severe winter weather this way: rapidly falling snow, icy streets, and gusting winds are all brutal. The epitome of brutal weather is a blizzard — or, to use a recent term, a snowmageddon.

This word usually applies to foods that are thin and dry and crack easily: think of the sharp crunch when you break or bite into a cracker. But we sometimes describe bitterly cold days as crisp too: especially a day with a high wind chill. On days with 30 or 40 mile per hour winds, just walking to the corner can feel like you're getting stabbed with icicles repeatedly, and no coat or suit of armor can keep you warm. Crisp weather is also called brisk.

Words won't keep you warm in the winter, and they won't shovel your driveway or salt your sidewalk. But they will improve the quality of your complaints about the winter. At least that's something.

Snowed in? Hunker down with this list of Wintry Words.

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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.

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Comments from our users:

Monday December 18th 2017, 9:52 AM
Comment by: Rylan (WA)
I lived in Alaska for nine years, so I had some pretty bitter winters there. But it's just something you get used to after a while. That's why I'm still wearing shorts when there's still a few inches of snow on the ground.

Wednesday January 3rd 2018, 2:44 AM
Comment by: Charval (TX)
BRRRR is my new favorite word.

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