February 02, 2007

Snowclone atonement

Sometimes it feels as if our perpetual complaints about the Eskimo snow-word myth — and its attendant snowclones — are nothing more than empty howls echoing across the tundra. So it's gratifying when a major news organization actually pays attention to our kvetching and tries to set the record straight. Earlier this week I noted the umpteenth iteration of the snow-word trope in the Sunday Chicago Tribune's "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.
If so, what does the following huge vocabulary say about us?
Murder; kill; slay; assassinate; dispatch; hit; annihilate;
[etc., etc., etc.]

This was particularly disappointing to see in the same paper that had just recently featured an enlightening column by Nathan Bierma all about Language Log's favorite hobbyhorse. To be fair, as Bierma later pointed out via email, the Tribune's Sunday magazine goes to press about three weeks before it's distributed, so the "40 words for snow" item would have been written before Bierma's column appeared on Jan. 17. Nonetheless, the timing was a tad embarrassing.

Yesterday, however, the Tribune printed the following correction:

An item in the Sunday Magazine referred to a popular but unfounded notion that Eskimos have dozens of words for snow, in this case 40. The item failed to note that the assertion has been debunked by linguists and others.

Or, as the media correction blog Regret The Error put it, "How many words do they have for 'oops'?"

(Hat tip, Eli Morris-Heft.)

Posted by Benjamin Zimmer at February 2, 2007 03:08 PM