T. S. Eliot wrote that “April is the cruelest month,” but when it comes to weather, January is in fact much crueler, bringing most of the Northern Hemisphere its coldest temperatures of the year. During this frosty season, we’ve asked ex-Jeopardy! champ Ken Jennings to come in from the cold and put a chill on some of the most persistent cold-weather myths he could think of. You shall know the truth and the truth shall set you freeze. (Sorry, we borrowed all these puns from Arnold Schwarzenegger’s dialogue in Batman and Robin.)
Icy Myth #1: Eskimos Have, Like, a Hundred Words for Snow.
This classic bit of folklore comes from a surprisingly authoritative academic source: in 1883, the great anthropologist Franz Boas spent a year among the Inuit people of Canada’s Baffin Island, and later wrote that the language there was surprisingly expressive on the subject of snow. He wrote, “Here we find one word, aput, expressing SNOW ON THE GROUND; another one, qana, FALLING SNOW; a third one, piqsirpoq, DRIFTING SNOW; and a fourth one, qimuqsuq, A SNOWDRIFT.” This innocent observation quickly traveled from academic literature to the popular imagination, with the number of words quickly snowballing from Boas’s four up to fifty or more. By 1984, when the notion appeared in The New York Times, the supposed number of Eskimo snow words was one hundred.
Most linguists now believe this isn’t true. “The Eskimos do not have more words for snow than do speakers of English,” writes Steven Pinker in The Language Instinct. “The idea that Eskimos have many more words for snow than English speakers is a myth,” agrees Geoffrey Pullum. (Quick note to Canadians and other well-meaning nitpickers: no, “Inuit” is not always the correct replacement for “Eskimo.” Indigenous Alaskans include the Yupik and Inupiat peoples, who aren’t Inuit at all. But I digress.) There are two problems with assembling a definitive count. First, there isn’t just one Eskimo-Aleut language—there are at least eight, depending on how you count dialects. And secondly, these languages are all polysynthetic, meaning that Eskimo vocabulary gets created on the fly by combining smaller morphemes. We might say “last night’s wet snow with a thick frozen crust,” but in a Yupik or Inuit language, all those ideas could be combined into a single “word.”
In the interest of “teaching the controversy,” let me point out that New Scientist magazine last month interviewed a Smithsonian researcher named Igor Krupnik, who claims that at least some Eskimo languages do use dozens of different morphemes for snow and ice. So the “hundreds words for snow” thing, while overhyped, might not quite be the “hoax” that some linguists have claimed. But keep in mind that a complete English snow-cabulary could get pretty long as well, including words along the lines of “slush,” “blizzard,” “flurry,” “drift,” “flake,” and so on.
And whatever you do, don’t believe the oft-passed-around Internet list of “Eskimo words for snow” credited to one Phil James. It starts out simple, with “Eskimo” translations for “powder snow,” “drifting snow,” “blowing snow,” and so on, but gradually drifts into more outré territory: “green snow,” “fried snow,” “the idea of snow,” “snow used to make Eskimo Margaritas,” and “a small snowball, preserved in Lucite, that had been handled by Johnny Depp.” If you believe this is an authentic Eskimo glossary, I have a bridge across the Bering Strait I’d like to sell you.
Quick Quiz: What 1992 song was the sole hit for the Canadian rap/reggae musician Darrin O’Brien, a.k.a. Snow?
Ken Jennings is the author of Because I Said So!, Brainiac, Ken Jennings's Trivia Almanac, and Maphead. He's also the proud owner of an underwhelming Bag o' Crap. Follow him at ken-jennings.com or on Twitter as @KenJennings.