January 29, 2007

Snow-word progress: glacial at best

Geoff Pullum did his best to sound optimistic a few weeks ago when a reader sent in a reasonably well-informed treatment of the "Eskimo snow words" myth from the Holland Herald, the in-flight magazine of KLM Airlines. This respite from the usual drumbeat of media misinformation was notable enough to catch the attention of Michael Quinion at World Wide Words and Nathan Bierma at the Chicago Tribune, who both shared Geoff's sanguine sentiment that there was "progress at last" on the snow-word front. But the headline to Bierma's column is probably a more accurate assessment: "Hell will freeze over before Eskimo 'snow' myth melts." Just a week and a half after Bierma's piece appeared, this is how Jeff Lyon began an item in the Chicago Tribune's Sunday Magazine under the rubric "Cultural Riffs":

It's been said that Eskimos - known as the Inuit these days - have 40 words for snow, reflecting how profoundly connected their lives are with the white stuff.


The rest of the item is predictable enough for anyone who knows why we call snowclones "snowclones."

If so, what does the following huge vocabulary say about us?

Murder; kill; slay; assassinate; dispatch; hit; annihilate; eliminate; eradicate; rub out; liquidate; execute; ice; cool; do in; do away with; bump off; knock off; finish off; massacre; slaughter; waste; wipe out; zap; silence; cap; whack; snuff; extinguish; exterminate; decimate; shed blood; take for a ride; take out.

And, of course: Shoot; gun down; plug; fill full of lead; mow down; stab; knife; slash; flay, cut out the giblets of; eviscerate; garrote; hang; strangle; smother; suffocate; choke; asphyxiate; drown; defenestrate; bludgeon; crucify; poison; behead; guillotine; lynch; starve; gas; blow up; bomb; atomize; incinerate.

There's way more, but that's enough for a Sunday morning.

So what does that big list say about us? I think it says that we have newspaper staffers who are really good at using a thesaurus (and who don't bother to read the language column in their own paper).

For more coverage of the never-ending snow-word struggle, see the links in this post.

(Hat tip, Erin McKean.)

[Update: The Trib admirably issued a correction to the item. Details here.]

Posted by Benjamin Zimmer at January 29, 2007 04:52 PM