Thursday, February 4, 2016

Language of Confusion: Stuff That Comes From The Sky

The blizzard a few weeks ago got me thinking about why we call snow “snow” which of course made me start to wonder about the names for weather in general. So here we are. Except I actually etymologized rain way back in 2013, where I did it with rein and reign. On to the others.

Snow showed up as a verb in the early fourteenth century. The noun showed up earlier, although no specific date was given. Snow used to be snew/snaw/sniwan (snow) in Old English, and further back the Proto Germanic snaiwaz. That’s as far back as we can trace, which is unfortunate because I’d really like to know who came up with a word like “snaiwaz”. It sounds like sneeze. Which, disappointingly, is not related in the least.

Thunder showed up in the thirteenth century, coming from the Old English Þunor/Þunrian, which is just thunder. That Þ is a good emoticon for a tongue sticking out, and it is also thorn, which makes the th sound. So it’s just thunder without the d, I guess. Anyway, before that, it was the Proto Germanic thunraz and even earlier the Proto Indo European (s)tene-, resound or thunder.

Sleet’s origin is rather obscure. It showed up in the early fourteenth century as slete, and might come from a possible Old English word, slete/slyte. That word, if it exists, is related to the Middle High German sloz and Middle Low German sloten, which means hail and frankly is a much cooler word than sleet. That word comes from the Proto Germanic slautjan and slaut, which is related to sleet. Frankly, it would be a weird coincidence if sleet didn’t come from this word, but stranger things have happened.

Now, there’s more than one hail. It relates to health and to what you do to get a cab, but neither one is related to the frozen rain hail so we’re just going to ignore them. Hail—from the sky—comes from the Old English haegl/hagol, hail. That word in turn comes from the Proto Germanic haglaz, which probably comes from the Proto Indo European kaghlo-, pebble. Weird how this one can be traced so far back and yet sleet is a big question mark.

You might notice I didn’t do lightning here. That’s because it’s just light + -ning and that can wait until I do a post on light. Which I’m sure will happen eventually.

TL;DR: Weather stuff seems to all be Germanic. Who knew?

Tony Jebson’s page on the Origins of Old English


  1. Germans must have crazy weather.
    One thing I've noticed with all of your origin posts. If we were to go back eight hundred years or so, we wouldn't know what anyone was saying - and no one would understand us.

  2. Fascinating stuff! Have a great week.

  3. I guess Germans have better weather? Or more of it. Or it could just be that the Saxon words supplanted the Old English.

  4. That old word does sound like a sneeze.

    Snow is one of the very best words one can possibly have.

  5. Interesting that many of these words ended in z, when in English they sound much softer. "Snow" sounds very gentle.

  6. Interesting that weather words all have German origin. I wonder if there are other groups of things that have a single root language too...


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