The linguistic takeaway from a major snowstorm turns out to be that 'blizzard' is a relatively new term.
Melanie Stetson Freeman/TCSM
Dear readers, the word of the moment here in New England is, inevitably, . And it turns out to be not all that old, at least not in its meteorological sense.
But didn't William Bradford and the Mayflower Pilgrims face blizzards? Other early explorers of the New World before that? And Beowulf and his crowd before that, back in the old country?
Well, no. The Online Etymology Dictionary, which tracks the Oxford English Dictionary pretty closely, traces , in the sense of "strong, sustained snowstorm," back only to 1859. Merriam-Webster Online pegs it as even later: 1870. Neither source offers much to explain its origin: "Obscure" is the best the etymology dictionary can offer. It speculates that there may be a connection with in the sense of a "white spot," as on an animal, and notes that there is a Proto-Germanic root suggesting "shining" or "white" – as in , or the German , "lightning," which comes, of course, in white flashes.
I can buy this, although the whiteness here has been more than just a spot or a flash. in the sense of a severe snowstorm came into general use in the United States during the winter of 1880-81, and perhaps was originally a colloquial figurative usage in the Upper Midwest – where they would have needed a word for "serious snowstorm." That means that during the Blizzard of 1978 – whose 35th anniversary came just days before the latest storm, Nemo, hit – had been in general use less than a century.