A Batch of Blossoms: Words for Snow

Snowflake photo

Snowflake photo by Wilson Bentley circa 1902. Bentley was one of the first known photographers of snowflakes. For more information, visit: http://snowflakebentley.com/WBsnowflakes.htm

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.

A word-file for blossom from the DNE Collection.

From an interview recorded in 1967. Reproduced by permission of the English Language Research Centre, Memorial University, St. John’s, NL.

A word-file for cruddley snow from the DNE Collection.

Recorded in 1966. 'Cruddley snow' here, the phrase may also be spelled 'cruddy snow' and 'crudly snow'. Reproduced by permission of the English Language Research Centre, Memorial University, St. John’s, NL.

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.

A word-file for dwie from the DNE Collection

Dwy has several variant spellings in the DNE: dwey, dwigh, dwoi, dwoy, dwye, and dwie, which is shown on this word-file. GMS are the initials for DNE editor George Morley Story. Reproduced by permission of the English Language Research Centre, Memorial University, St. John’s, NL.

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’.

A word-file for Sheila's Brush from the DNE Collection.

A word-file for Sheila's Brush from the ELRC's DNE Collection. Reproduced by permission of the English Language Research Centre, Memorial University, St. John’s, NL.

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.

A word-file for bumper from the DNE Collection.

Recorded in 1973: “JUST LOOK AT THE SIZE OF THOSE BUMPERS” “Bumpers are the large blocks of snow seen when shovelling. The size of the bumpers depends on the person who is shovelling the snow and the weight of the snow itself – how much weight he can carry on the shovel & if the snow doesn’t fall off.” Reproduced by permission of the English Language Research Centre, Memorial University, St. John’s, NL.

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.

A word-file for rot hole from the DNE Collection.

The earliest quote for rot hole that appears in the DNE. Reproduced by permission of the English Language Research Centre, Memorial University, St. John’s, NL.

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’.

A word-file for stog from the DNE Collection.

Recorded in 1964 and reproduced by permission of the English Language Research Centre, Memorial University, St. John’s, NL.

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.

A word-file for May water from the DNE Collection.

From a 1971 interview. Reproduced by permission of the English Language Research Centre, Memorial University, St. John’s, NL.

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.

Advertisements
This entry was posted in Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to A Batch of Blossoms: Words for Snow

  1. faith balisch says:

    Do you have the word pom[b]ly or pum[b]ly rock in reference to round beach rocks? My grandfather, born in 1889 used the term in describing how he and his mates played “crickers” on the ponds in back of Habour le Cou in the 1890s using “pom[b]ly” rocks in place of a ball. When I asked him why they played in winter, he answered that “we needed a flat place, didn’t we?” Faith

    • Hi Faith,

      Great story! There is an entry for pumbly in the first edition of the Dictionary:

      pumbly a also pommelly, pumly, etc. Cp EDD pumple 2 (2) ~ stone ‘pebble-stone,’ ADD pumble ‘bit of hard rock embedded in soft limestone’ Bermuda. Of rocks, large and coarse; fragmented; boulder-like; ragged.

      For the full entry, visit: http://www.heritage.nf.ca/dictionary/azindex/pages/3519.html

      There is also a word file in the DNE Collection that is stamped 1980 and defines pumbly rocks as ‘beach rocks, big round’. This file did not make it into the Supplement, however.

      Jenny

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s