Individually, snowflakes can beguile. Fragile, fractal-like, and ephemeral, they fall in an infinite variety of shapes. Gentle flurries are best, and best enjoyed on still evenings when big fluffy flakes slowly drift through the air before alighting on the ground and, importantly, melting a few minutes later. It’s when they loiter about that they become irritating. Few people want to wake up to the great maddening crowd of snowflakes camped out in their driveways and hogging the sidewalks to boot.
Snow makes getting around more difficult, but it sure makes small talk easy – and has been doing so for generations. The Dictionary of Newfoundland English contains many words that describe the different kinds of snow and snowfalls we get. Blossom is a lovely word for the big beautiful snowflakes that fall in mild winter weather. The word captures the prettiness of this type of snow and our enjoyment of it. In contrast is cruddy or crudly snow – the kind that has stayed around far too long and now crunches underfoot.
Blossoms of snow usually fall in a flurry or gust, known as a dwy or scad. A dwy may refer to a rain shower as well, while scad may also mean a ‘thin layer of snow on the ground’. Both words are of British origin and came here from southwest England, likely by settlers and migratory fishers who regularly travelled to Newfoundland and Labrador between the 17th and 19th centuries.
But it isn’t all blossoms and dwies in the wintertime. We also get blizzards and screechers: horrible howling storms. Like irritating partygoers, a few snowstorms arrive late every year, usually in mid-March or April, long after their novelty has worn off. The DNE lists two names for straggler snowstorms: Sheila’s brush and Patrick’s brush. The latter is rarely used in conversation today, although the former is common. Both refer to storms that happen on or near St. Patrick’s Day.
According to the Dictionary, Sheila was the ‘wife, sister, housekeeper or acquaintance of St. Patrick, patron saint of Ireland’. The word brush may be from the British dialect word brash, which means a ‘sudden gust of wind, a spell of wet weather; a [snow] storm’.
When the storms are over we are left with a batch of snow to clear away. Wintertime shoveling is a provincial sport in Newfoundland and Labrador – it is part of our heritage and therefore part of our language. Those large blocks of snow we carve out with our shovels and heave into the far corners of our driveways are called bumpers. The Oxford English Dictionary defines bumper as slang for ‘anything unusually large or abundant’.
Bumper has four senses in the DNE: 1. a large mass or chunk of snow; 2. in sledding, a hump followed by a sudden dip; 3. home-grown potato of inferior quality; and 4. a fishing season, vessel, or voyage that resulted in a full catch or load.
Walking around in a batch of snow can be fun, especially if you have snowshoes, but there are dangers to watch out for. Beware of rot holes: soft places in ice or snow that are hazardous to tread on. This phrase appears to have originated here – there is no entry in the OED and the earliest quote in the DNE is from a 1924 publication about the Newfoundland seal hunt.
Step in a rot hole and you might get stogged – this word originated in southwest England and means ‘to be stuck in boggy ground or snow’; it was likely brought here by English settlers in the 19th century. The DNE lists three other senses for stog: ‘to insulate a house’, ‘to block or clog an aperture’, and ‘to fill completely’.
As the seasons change, batches melt and leave behind a soft and slushy substance, known as rotten snow in the DNE. This, of course, may not happen until late spring or even early summer in Newfoundland and Labrador. If there is a flurry in May, consider catching some snow and bringing it indoors to melt. The resulting liquid is called May water and, as the word-file below explains, was once believed by some people here to have medicinal qualities.
However, let us hope that by May we will be using spades instead of shovels and that blossoms of snow will have given way to more colourful perennials – the lovely crocuses, tulips, and daffodils of early spring.