November 09, 2006

Only 17 words for snow

I'm not sure what the current record is for Eskimo N, the number of words the Eskimos are claimed to have for snow, but this Sunday's New York Times Book Review yielded an unusually modest Eskimo N, 17.

From Christopher Buckley's review (p. 18) of Chris Miller's The Real Animal House: The Awesomely Depraved Saga of the Fraternity That Inspired the Movie, on the vocabulary of the members of Alpha Delta Phi at Dartmouth in the early 1960's:

There are... a few relatively innocent terms, like the synonyms for breasts: "jehoshaphats," "baboos," "wazookies," "ka-hogas" and of course "gabongas."  The Inuit language contains -- what? -- 17 different words for "snow"?  The AD's must have twice that many for "vomit."

Buckley has obviously pulled the number 17 out of his, um, hat.  This number is what you're likely to come up with when you're asked to pick a random number: it's the smallest prime number without any special cultural significance.  The numbers 2, 3, 5, 7, and 13 are clearly special; 11 is not quite so special, though it is the number of players on a football team (American or Association), and then you're up to 17.

zwicky at-sign csli period stanford period edu

Posted by Arnold Zwicky at November 9, 2006 10:01 AM