The 14 Eskimo Names for Snow

by Patrick McLean

 

Download this episode

So I heard that the Eskimo have fourteen different words to describe snow. Seemed like this was worth looking into.

I heard that the Eskimos have 14 different words for snow. And since snow has been much on my mind of late, I thought I would go find out.
So I journeyed to the far frozen North. Where I found a barren, desolate place where life is unthinkably hard — a wasteland from which it seems that all hope and every ray of sunshine has fled. It was in this place, which the natives call Detroit, that I changed planes, and boarded a flight North to Alaska.
From Anchorage I took a snowplane even further north. Then a dogsled until finally I reached the remote villiage of Ooooom-laut hi-amop-apule — A lovely sounding name which I later learned means “cold-ass place near the even colder-ass sea.”
There I was met by my translator Fran. (Muffled speech)
He, or she, was so bundled up that I had no idea weather he was a he or she or she was a he. And it seemed in appropriate to lift the parka to check.
Patrick — “Hello”
That night as I listened to the howl of a mighty Arctic wind batter the quonset hut where I huddled for warmth, I was too excited to sleep. Here I was, about to delve into the mysteries of another language — to loot the Inuit tongue like an etymological Indiana Jones — and bring back the fabled 14 names of snow.
That night I dreamed of the power of these names and how they might change my life. . Perhaps I would write a book — a New York Times best-seller, with a catchy poppy title, like “The 14 Kinds of Snow you will Shovel.” I could hear myself on NPR, discussing the names of snow in careful, modulated tones like my voice was draped in tweed and wearing lensless heavy black glasses as an accessory.
Umacka macka macka macka lamea shup
— NASAL — HUHUHUHUHUHUHUHUHUHUHU that’s quite a mouthful.
Yes, it’s the snow that that is like the skin of a leopard seal that has been dead for over two weeks and has dried up and flaked off in the wind.
—Oh my, Leopard Seal how gauche
Well, you have to understand, Leopard Seals are still very much in up there. It’s a very, very red state when it comes to seal and whale blubber issues.
—I should say so.

But most of all, I couldn’t sleep because I was excited to find out what the names actually were. Fourteen different words for snow. What fine distinctions, what literary power would be mine when these words were firmly in my command?

The next day Fran and I went to meet with the elder of the tribe. (Fran muffled speech) The smoke was thick in the Igloo and it took a while for my eyes to adjust to the low, thick light of that handmade snow castle. The elder was a weathered old man, squatting near the fire and wearing a battered Miami Heat sweatshirt. I didn’t know what to make of his attire, but I had come this far, it was time to ask.

“Please great sir, I have come from the lands of the south to humbly ask, by what names do you call snow?”
— Muffled translation —
Ohn wan seem untmeayu oats tu mayu
— Muffled translation —
I couldn’t believe it. I asked again to be sure.
—Muffled translation —
As Fran had so ably translated, the old man had answered, “Snow, we just call it friggin snow.”
It’s one thing to admit defeat. But to admit defeat and then have a layover in Detroit to think about it. Lemme tell you. That’s a kinda low you don’t ever want to feel.
Turns out the whole thing was hoax. The Eskimo have a word for snow and they add other words to it just like English. You know, like Snow. Fluffy Snow. Yellow Snow. Snow that’s crappy for making Igloos. Snow Cone Snow.
I felt so stupid. I mean, I should have checked right before I bought the plane ticket. At least before I rented that damn dogsled. My dreams of lexigraphical stardom smashed, I felt like I didn’t have anything to live for. I felt a strong desire to wander out of the Detroit airport and into the streets — away from the life of comfort I had built, to live by my wits amid the decaying city and lonely meth labs, clinging to the edges of life until one day I would be torn apart by a pack wild dogs or perhaps a gang of feral auto workers.
But then, in the midst of my despair, I was saved by an idea. The eskimos might not have fourteen, thirty-four, fifty-two names of snow. But that didn’t mean that I couldn’t make them up.
And that’s exactly what I did. Right there in the middle of the Detroit airport. I started writing, I was so absorbed, I missed my flight. And the flight after that. But when I finally made it home, I returned TRIUMPHANT.

So here they are world, the fourteen (and change) Eskimo classifications of snow.

1) The damp, back-killing snow that’s a bitch to shovel
2) The snow that increases your chances of getting laid while falling when you are in the hot tub.
3) The snow that falls in response to children’s prayers for school cancellation.
4) The snow that is tough enough to build snow men out of, yet sensitive enough to also build snow women.
5) the snow that appears like magic on Christmas morning
6) Slush
7 The snow with the crunchy outer coating
8) The heavily compacted snow of mall parking lot snowbergs that lasts well into the spring
9) The snow puffy snow that you can make snow angels in without getting wet.
10) The snow that culls the weaker pine branches from the forest.
11) the snow that sticks to everything
12) The cunning, kamikaze snow that finds away past you scarf to die sizzling on the bare skin of your neck
13) The snow that looks like it’s soft and deep, but isn’t
14) The snow that only exists in snow globes and Norman Rockwell paintings.
15) The angry, high-velocity ice crystals that are born from snowmakers in Southern Ski resorts
16) The icy snow that chatters and taunts skiers in the NorthEast.
17) The snow that falls in Minnesota and is blown into Wisconsin
18) The tough Manhattan snow that gets pushed around, driven over, stepped on, brushed off — but never gives up it’s dreams of a minor role in a Broadway production of A Christmas Carol.
19) The snow that thinks it’s special and unique when it’s falling, but realizes, when it hit’s the drift, that it’s just like everybody else.
20) The snow that brings southern cities to a standstill just by threatening to fall.
21) The Mighty Snow of the Rockies — enough to close the pass, strand the travellers and convince families to make a holiday tradition of cannibalism.
22) The snow of far-off snow capped peaks that many will see, but few will ever touch.
23) The snow that covers the climber who failed to reach the summit.
24) The sudden snow that makes a fool of the weatherman.
25) The snow that falls on the just and the unjust alike
26) The snow that the dog tracks into the house
And finally,
27) Snow cone snow.

Be Sociable, Share!