Word Routes

Exploring the pathways of our lexicon

SnOMG! It's Snowmageddon 2010

Over the last few days, America's Eastern seaboard has seen record levels of snow... accompanied by record levels of snow wordplay. There has been a blizzard of "portmanteau words" involving snow, with snowmageddon and snowpocalypse leading the way. On Twitter, the hashtag of choice has been snOMG, compactly joining snow with the online interjection OMG. We haven't seen this much seasonal word-blending since 2008's "summer of the staycation."

The entertaining blog A Daily Portmanteau has rounded up some "under-utilized or never-before-been-used" examples of "snowmenclature," including:

  • Snovice - A person that has never seen snow before.
  • Snowhere - As in where do you go in a snowstorm? Snowhere.
  • Snowonder - "Snowonder I have no running water. My pipes are frozen."
  • Snowbegone - "Greetings from Lake Snowbegone."
  • Snowmad - When unable to go home, snowmads wander hotels, airports and bus stations.

I've also seen snownami, snowverkill, snowverload, and, for fans of '90s hiphop, Snowtorious B.I.G. Clearly, there's no end to the potential snow-blending. And you thought Eskimos had a lot of words for snow! (Well, if you actually did think that, educate yourself by reading Geoffrey Pullum's essay "The Great Eskimo Vocabulary Hoax" from his 1991 book of the same name, as well as his more recent debunking on Language Log.)

The leaders of the (snow)pack, snowmageddon (snow + armageddon) and snowpocalypse (snow + apocalypse), have actually been around for a while: both were in use when snowstorms hit the U.S. in late 2005. (Blog posts at the time declared "Snowmageddon 2005" and "Snowpocalypse is upon us...") But this time around, the words have been unavoidable, especially on cable news reports.

It's not just snow that's gotten the end-of-the-world treatment from wordsmiths. Visual Thesaurus contributor Mark Peters wrote a column for Good magazine last year entitled "Wordgeddon," all about how -(ma)geddon and -(poc)alypse have become productive combining forms for describing catastrophes major and minor. Mark has spotted some real odd ones, like tire-swing-pocalypse and bra-mageddon. Mark quotes me as saying that "making a metaphorical link to the end of the world only heightens the drama" of such blending, but in some cases the drama is just plain silly. And come to think of it, I don't believe some snow on the ground figured prominently in the Book of Revelation, either.

I leave you with a clip from last night's Daily Show with Jon Stewart, which illustrates just how preoccupied the cable news shows have become with snow portmanteaux:

The Daily Show With Jon StewartMon - Thurs 11p / 10c
Unusually Large Snowstorm
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Ben Zimmer is language columnist for The Wall Street Journal and former language columnist for The Boston Globe and The New York Times Magazine. He has worked as editor for American dictionaries at Oxford University Press and as a consultant to the Oxford English Dictionary. In addition to his regular "Word Routes" column here, he contributes to the group weblog Language Log. He is also the chair of the New Words Committee of the American Dialect Society. Click here to read more articles by Ben Zimmer.

The Summer of the "Staycation"
"Staycation" and other "-cation" words were popular in 2008.
Internet-ready blends, from "blog" to "vook."
How Edward Gelsthorpe invented "cran-morphing."