The only thing more impressive than this winter's recent snowfall has been the hyperbolic language we've used to describe it. SnOMG!
We live in an era of creative exaggeration. Everywhere you look, there’s an ice cream-pocalypse, a TV Guide-mageddon, or a Gaga-pocalypse (in honor of Lady Gaga’s eggy Grammy performance). In fact, we are ever on the verge of an exaggeration-pocalypse or hyperbole-mageddon, based on how much we love those suffixes.
This time of year, our collective word-making skills turn to snow. Snow words—especially “snowpocalypse” and “snowmageddon”—went mainstream in 2010, when terms such as “snowverload” and “SnotoriousBIG” started piling up like snow drifts. Since then, 2011’s snowfall and wordfall have kept up the pace. In The Atlantic, Rebecca Greenfield nicely summed up the situation:
This inability to handle the snow physically translated to an inability to handle the snow psychologically. What a place accustomed to snow—like Buffalo or Winnipeg—might refer to simply as a blizzard, suddenly became an occasion to freak out.
The form of that freak-out is words: words like “blizzaster,” “snowtastrophe,” and “snow-pocalypse-icane-mageddon.” Pretty soon, that language myth about the Inuits and all their words for snow might be true—about us.
Most new or newish snow words are blends. Blending—probably the most common way of making a word—produces plenty of successful portmanteau words, such as “smog” and “Brangelina.” Snow-word blends include “snowralysis,” “snowzilla,” “snover-reaction,” “snowlicious,” “snorm,” and “snowhere near expectations” (as one writer incorrectly speculated pre-snowpocalypse). The Chicago Sun-Times mentioned how the storm “... caused a number of people to flake out and stock up on their snow-cessities.” Since the 2011 storm hit on a day associated with Bill Murray and a certain rodent, some called it “Snowhog Day.” For my money, the cleverest blends merged snowstorms with other severe weather, like “snownami,” “snownado,” and “thundersnow.”
One snow-word got the Presidential seal of approval in 2010. That’s when President Obama referred to that year’s winter hellscape, which pounded Washington, D.C. badly, as a snowmageddon. As The New York Times On Language columnist Ben Zimmer has found, both “snowpocalypse” and “snowmageddon” have been around since at least 2005. Here’s a great column by Zimmer on last year’s snow words. Even if internet abbreviations make you want to remove your eyeballs with a trident, you have to appreciate the cleverness of “SnOMG!"
While most winter neologisms involve “snow,” a few up the ante by playing on “blizzard.” As discussed in this column a year ago, “blizzard” is a classic Americanism. That word predated the catastrophic winter of 1880-81, but accounts of that winter cemented “blizzard” in the lexicon, just as 2010’s storms brought “snowmageddon” and “snowpocalypse” into the mainstream. Blizzard-influenced words include “blahzzard” and “blizznasty,” but the most inspired and successful is probably “blizzaster”—a blend that wraps hyperbole in a package that’s damn fun to say.
Because Chicago—which usually doesn’t get enough snow to bury a deep-dish pizza—was one of the most hard-hit cities this winter, Chicago-centric snow words were plentiful. Chicago’s Red Eye offered some creative possibilities, playing on Harry Carey’s catchphrase (“snowlycow”), an SNL skit (“DaBlizzard”), a great Chicago Bears coach (“DitkasRevenge”), and the unofficial queen of the city and universe (“Snowprah”). Elsewhere, names referenced the Cubs (“Wrigley Ripper”), longtime Mayor Richard M. Daley (“Daley’s Last Wind”), a Chicago movie (“Ferris Bueller’s Snow Day Off”), a despised local quarterback (“The Alberta Cutler”), and the rarity of severe snow in the city (“Once-a-decade Snow Day”). As a snow-battered Buffalo native and Chicago resident since 2005, I settled on calling it, “The first time I’ve been impressed by snow since I moved here."
Most snow-terms will melt away like an icicle, but the success of a few inspired an interesting internet comment:
Not that I would ever want a repeat of last winter's storms, but are the names used to describe a snowstorm retired like the major hurricanes? I think that both Snowpocalypse and Snowmageddon were great names and would hate being unable to describe the next storm that drops a ton of snow on my driveway with those names.
Indeed, “snowmageddon” and “snowpocalypse” are so vivid and fun that I predict they will eventually be added to dictionaries; they could be permanent synonyms for “blizzard” and “holy crap, that’s a lot of snow.”
Whether dictionaries get in on the fun or not, I suspect snow-word-coining will continue to be the hottest winter sport. In Buffalo, longtime mayor Jimmy Griffin made headlines during an 1985 blizzard by suggesting folks “Just relax, stay inside, and open a six-pack.” That’s still pretty good advice, but it clearly needs an update:
“Just relax, stay inside, sip a microbrew, and make up a new word for the latest snowaster.”
Illustration by Sara Saedi