Verbal Energy

An alternative vocabulary of winter

People used to say, "It snew last night" or "It's snowen all week" – and not so long ago

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The wind blew hard all last night, and it snew as well – up to 15 inches in some places.

What's that you say? No such word as snew? Ah, but there used to be. And not so long ago, either.

Today snow is a regular verb, forming both its past tense and its past participle simply by adding "ed."

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But it was not always thus. Before the noun snow was repurposed as a verb, there was a different verb for the action of "[t]he partially frozen vapour of the atmosphere falling in flakes characterized by their whiteness and lightness," as the Oxford English Dictionary rather lyrically puts it.

The Old English verb sníwan was used instead. Its past was the aforementioned "snew."

Its participle was "snowen." But spelling was not yet standardized, and so variants abounded. Verbs such as sníwan are known as "strong verbs," contrasted with the "weak" snow/snowed/snowed. Oxford notes, "The strong conjugation, formerly common, was no doubt due to the influence of blow."

Here's an Oxford usage example from 1530, quaint but still comprehensible to moderns: "In wynter, whan it snoweth, it is good syttynge by a good fyre."

But here's something from just five years before, in a translation of Froissart's Chronicles, an account of the Hundred Years' War: "Also it rayned, blewe, & snewe, that it was a mervaylouse yvell wether."

And from just a few years later, "[I]t had snowen and frosen very strong."

This alternative verb lasted well into the 19th century. Oxford has this from 1870: "It never snew once last winter." And from 1877 (after the telephone was invented!): "It's snawn all way here."

When a word starts with "sn," it's often a good guess that it has come to English from some Old Norse root, but in this case, there are cognates (related words) for snow in languages spoken all across northern Europe.

Sleet, as a noun (from about 1300) or verb (from soon after that), is another example of a weather word with a lot of Nordic relatives. Slush, with its just about perfect onomatopoeia, goes back to the 1640s. Oxford calls the word "of doubtful origin," but that doesn't make it any less useful.

A survey of the vocabulary of winter reveals some words surprisingly old and some surprisingly new. Snowstorm goes back only to 1771. Snowplow appeared on the scene in 1792, in New Hampshire. I would have guessed there were snowstorms for a long while before there were snowplows.

The Online Etymology Dictionary's page of references to "snow" mentions chiono, described as a "word-forming element," a Latin version of a Greek word meaning snow. These combining words are always a kick; they can make one sound so erudite. One can imagine a snow expert being described as a "chionologist," for instance, but I'm not sure how widely used the term is.

Edward Gibbon, in his "History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire," mentions "an ancient chionologist" quoted by one of his own sources, but it's not clear how expertise in snow was relevant to the matter at hand.

It may be that the most common English word using this combining particle is Chionodoxa, commonly known as "glory of the snow," a type of bulbous perennial plant notable for flowering in early spring.

Now you'll have to excuse me. I've got to go scrape some "glory" of a different kind off my windshield.

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