Tuesday, January 08

The Debunker: Do Eskimos Have a Hundred Words for Snow?

by Ken Jennings

 

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.

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