Sunday 22 April 2012

The Weather

Always a topic close to the heart of any Brit, the weather. For such a temperate climate we spend a quite ludicrous amount of time talking about something which is never right. It's too hot or cold, wet or dry, windy or humid. Yet this cannot be anything new. If we find the weather such an important topic when we spend so much of our time in today's artificial environments, logically it must have been as important to our ancestors who were forced to spend a much greater proportion of their lives out of doors. Thus it stands to reason the Proto-Indo-European tongue, the ancestor of just about every European language, will have given us many of the words we use today.

Whilst it is impossible to know the Proto-Indo-European tongue, for no written form existed, we can trace something of the etymology by comparing the many branches known through written histories.

Sky - speak of the weather and our first instinct is to look up, no surprise as the weather hardly ever occurs in the atmosphere below shoulder height. One would think this would be a really early word and yet it does not appear in English until the thirteenth century when it meant 'a cloud'. This meaning can be traced to a Proto-Indo-European skeu but that meant 'cover, conceal'. Hence while we refer to the sky as that bit which is blue during the day and dotted with stars at night, to the ancients the sky was the cloud and the rest was nothing at all which I suppose is almost correct.

Cloud - is the next obvious thing to look at and, once again, has a really odd history. This comes from Old English clud meaning 'mass of rock', there is still a summit known as 'The Cloud', and first used in the modern sense in the thirteenth century. We have no notion of what the Saxons called those white (fluffy) /grey (foreboding) / black (ominous) big things which have a tendency to move across the sky. Yet this is not to say the term had never been used prior to this. Indeed there is a reference dating from 414 BC in The Birds by Aristophanes, here he speaks of Nephelokokkygia, an imaginary city in the air which translates as a phrase everyone has heard of: 'cloud cuckoo land'.

Rain - surely the most talked about aspect of the weather. Commuters insist it rains more often to and from their place of employment than when they are in the dry at either end. In the days before the washing machine and dryer it was the bane of housewives everywhere on 'wash day'. On the school run you will never fail to hear how it "Always waits for the kids to come out of school" - which is utter drivel, the weather gods actually hate the educators and target the teachers, it is mere coincidence the pupils go home at roughly the same time. As a word it can be traced to Latin rigare 'to wet, moisten' which has also given us 'irrigate', and perhaps represents a Proto-Indo-European reg 'moisten, wet'. Of course 'rain' is not the only word describing liquid water from water vapour.

Drizzle - a fine rain, which is from a fourteenth century drysning meaning 'falling of dew'. We also find Old English dreosan 'to fall', likely from a base of Proto-Indo-European dhreu 'to drip'.

Muggy - what I considered a very British term is related to the above. From Middle English mugen and Old Norse mugga it originally described 'drizzle'.

Shower - refers to the duration not the amount of rain to fall. Both Old English scur and Old Norse skur have a Germanic base skuro and a Proto-Indio-European origin in kew-ero 'north wind'.

Deluge - unsurprisingly from Old French deluge and ultimately from Latin diluvium 'flood, inundation'. It is related to dis 'away' and luere 'to wash'.

Snow - is a comapartively late English word, in Old English it was sniwan. While it is often said the Inuit have fifty words for snow, nobody bothers to mention the English also used snew until at least the seventeenth century. Interestingly the other use, as in 'snowed under' or 'overwhelm', is also the original meaning of the white fluffy stuff much loved by those who enjoy making snowmen and snowballs (or perhaps than should be overwhelmed-men and overwhelmed-balls).

Slush - shares an origin with the Danish slus for 'sleet', an accurate description.

Sleet - is unknown in Old English, most likely because it went unrecorded for the Germanic group have enough examples including Middle High German sloz, Middle Low German sloten, Norwegian slutr, Danish slud, Swedish sloud, and all from Proto-Germanic slautjan and Proto-Indo-European slaut. This is related to 'hail' in its development and together probably described something which was not quite snow. Much as a weather forecast in February of this year which promised the snow would turn first to sleet and then icy rain, as if we would be aware there was a difference between the latter two.

Hail - in Old English was hagol, in Old Frisian heil, Old Norse hagl, and several others. All traced to Greek kakhlex and Proto-Indo-European kaghlo meaning 'round pebble' and 'pebble' respectively.

Wind - the Old English wind is from Proto-Germanic wendas 'winds', ultimately from Proto-Indo-European went 'blowing' from the verb we 'to blow'. Other early releated tongues include Sanskrit va, Hittite huwantis, Breton gwent, and many others. Those who read lots of early poetry may be aware this was pronounced to rhyme with 'kind' or 'rind' until the eighteenth century, the present short vowel is due to the influence from 'windy' which is not easy to vocalise with the longer vowel sound.

Gale - to a meteorologist any wind between 32mph and 63mph. Historically it applied only to an ocean wind, perhaps connected to Old Norse gol 'breeze' or Old Danish gal 'furious'.

Hurricane - as many will be aware this is from Spanish huracan, itself from a word in the Arawakan language spoken by the Caribbean peoples. Seen in English from the late sixteenth century there were at least 39 different spellings of this word, Shakespeare speaks of a 'hurricano'.

Tempest - and on the subject of Shakespeare clearly this was in use before the Bard of Avon penned the play of this name. It is seen in Old French tempeste and Latin tempestas 'storm, commotion, disturbance'.

Tornado - is from Spanish tronada and Latin tonare both meaning 'thunder'.

Thunder - is from the Germanic group, Old English thunor, Old Norse thorr, Swedish tordon all from Proto-Indo-European stene meaning 'to resound'. This can be seen to be related to Sanskrit tanayitnuh and Persian tundar.

Lightning - is seen in Old English as lihting and is, rather predictably, from the same origin as 'light' and ultimately from Proto-Indo-European leuk 'brightness'.

Storm - can be traced to Proto-Germanic sturmaz 'onset, tumult'.

Fog - is a late addition to the English language. Danish fog 'spray, shower' is less likely than Old Norse fok 'snow flurry', thus used in the sense of difficult to see through.

Mist - is earlier than the above, found in Proto-Germanic mikhstaz, Sanskrit mih, and Proto-Indo-European migh or meigh it describes 'dimness' and, as with fog, difficult to see through.

With all these words decribing inclement weather, very few can be found for good and the main one includes an adjective from the noun which must have existed since well before it was worshipped as a god. This is really odd for, ignoring the cloudy bits, statistically there are more hours of sunshine than of rain. Which is even more amazing when considering it can only rain for 24 hours in any day, while 12 hours is the most sunshine we expect to average in a day over a year.

Sunny - clearly an adjective from that very early word. As we would expect for words which have their roots in the dawn of humanity this is a short, monosyllabic word. Proto-Germanic sunnon, Proto-Indo-European suwen, and the possibly earlier saewel all describe the great yellow orb but are also used to mean 'shine'.

The only other words I could think of to describe good weather were scorcher, clearly from scorch and first used in 1874 to describe a heatwave although oddly heatwave is not seen until 1890 when describing a spell of very warm weather, prior to that it was used to refer to the solar cycle. Such terms as 'fine', 'hot', 'sultry', 'swelter', etc all appear to be loan words. Indeed in the case of 'swelter' in the fourteenth century it meant 'to faint' and ultimately from Proto-Germanic sweltan 'to die'.

We can be certain discussions about the elements were among the earliest conversations. Sadly we shall never know any of the first words spoken by humanity (and possibly their ancestors and related anthropoids) which must have involved references to rain, wind, heat, cold, etc.

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