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.

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Comments from our users:

Thursday February 11th 2010, 8:18 AM
Comment by: Winston D.
Thanks for the language update!
Do you think such widespread use of the Internet for instant communications has caused inventive portmanteaux to become so easily and readily known by the populace that the news media feels comfortable embracing them as well?

All this icy precip, I fear,
Only causes me to slip, fall
And bust my frigid snowrriere!
Thursday February 11th 2010, 10:07 AM
Comment by: Valerie P.
Speaking of "new" words, I shrank from your use of "Eskimo". When I looked the term "Inuit" up, I found it is not a simple issue...

Usage Note: Eskimo has come under strong attack in recent years for its supposed offensiveness, and many Americans today either avoid this term or feel uneasy using it. It is widely known that Inuit, a term of ethnic pride, offers an acceptable alternative, but it is less well understood that Inuit cannot substitute for Eskimo in all cases, being restricted in usage to the Inuit-speaking peoples of Arctic Canada and parts of Greenland. In Alaska and Arctic Siberia, where Inuit is not spoken, the comparable terms are Inupiaq and Yupik, neither of which has gained as wide a currency in English as Inuit. While use of these terms is often preferable when speaking of the appropriate linguistic group, none of them can be used of the Eskimoan peoples as a whole; the only inclusive term remains Eskimo. · The claim that Eskimo is offensive is based primarily on a popular but disputed etymology tracing its origin to an Abenaki word meaning "eaters of raw meat." Though modern linguists speculate that the term actually derives from a Montagnais word referring to the manner of lacing a snowshoe, the matter remains undecided, and meanwhile many English speakers have learned to perceive Eskimo as a derogatory term invented by unfriendly outsiders in scornful reference to their neighbors' unsophisticated eating habits.

The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition
Copyright © 2009 by Houghton Mifflin Company.
Published by Houghton Mifflin Company. All rights reserved.
Thursday February 11th 2010, 10:24 AM
Comment by: Jan Freeman (MA)
I'm fond of "snowdenfreude" (which I used in a forthcoming column, though that paragraph may not make the final cut). John McIntyre recently cautioned us Northerners against making fun of his region's lack of snow-how, and I have to agree; it's no longer funny. (Besides, it's only February; who knows what the weather gods have in store for Massachusetts?)
Thursday February 11th 2010, 4:11 PM
Comment by: Rana Anuran (Silver Spring, MD)
Those unnecessary spaces just keep popping up.

I'm sure Jan meant "it'snolonger funny."



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