At the Wording Desk

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Avoid Weather Cliches

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ancient tarot card depicting the moon's sway over fate

Bill Casselman

How to Avoid Weather Clichés in English

Humans are social beings. Like many primates, as we approach one another, we make grunting noises to show we are friendly. It has been estimated that 75 per cent of all human speech is semantically void, empty of most meaning, uttered merely to display non-aggressive proximity. One of the topics we use in such low-key, friendly audible encounters is the weather. Statements or rhetorical questions about the weather are safe because they are communicated almost entirely in clichés, bits of speech so common as to approach meaninglessness.
“Nice day?”
“Warm for July.”
“Heh-heh. Not cold.”
“Windy yesterday.”
“No breeze this morning though.”
“Fair weather ahead. All week.”

Yet the fastidious user of English can avoid such platitudinous banality by simply learning new weather words. And Professor Billy is here, as ever, to perform his pedagogue’s duty by helping you to aroint from your word hoard every desiccated chestnut of meteorological vapidity.
Sunny
To avoid “Sunny, isn’t it?” one may whisper “Sol’s lucent realm beams on high” but people might look at you funny. A fig for their looks! I suggest a much rarer adjective for sunny, namely aprique. It may take penultimate stress as AP-rik or ultimate stress as uh-PREEK. Its origin is Latin apricus ‘sunny’ from the Latin verb apricare ‘to bask in the sun.’ Rarer still is apricity coined and used once by seventeenth-century English dictionary maker Henry Cockeram in 1623 to refer to the warmth of winter sun. Sol of course is Latin for ‘sun.’ Its more familiar derivatives are English words like solar, solarium and solstice, as well as less used terms like insolate ‘to expose to the sun’s rays, to treat a disease by exposure to sunlight.’ Do not confuse insolate with insulate.

 Fair Weather
The nautical “fair weather” is pleasant and is not heard as frequently as in days of sail. Said even less nowadays is the sentence once spoken when pleasant weather seemed like it might last all day, namely “The day is set fair.”

If the temperature is going to be not very hot and not very cold, you might coo “Clemency ensues, n’est-ce pas?” But ordinary listeners might judge you a bit snooty.

 Nonsense Response to Weather Inquiries
Answers to weather questions which are deliberately illogical are not appreciated by most. But devotees of the best English nonsense verse might enjoy a line or two from “The Walrus and The Carpenter” by Lewis Carroll from Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There, 1872.

The sun was shining on the sea,
Shining with all his might:
He did his very best to make
The billows smooth and bright--
And this was odd, because it was
The middle of the night.

Likewise disdained in weather response is understatement. When a small child is blown away down the block, don’t say, “Looks like the breeze has freshened.” On the contrary, scream and run madly to retrieve the aerial infant.

Overstatement may also be scorned during weather commentaries. At the onset of a thunder-clap which sends the dachshund under grandmother’s shawl, do not leap on the barbeque canopy and shout, “Action stations!”

Cold
Sudden gales of cold wind are best described by using folk sayings. Some folk sayings are vulgar and may bring a blush to the dewlaps of your maiden aunt. Consider these:

1. So cold this morning, before I could take a piss, I had to kick a hole in the air.
2. It’s a tree-snappin’ night.
3. Not a fit day for a fence post.
A very cold and stormy day in Prince Edward Island, Canada
4. We’re takin’ the mailbox in.
Meaning, there’s going to be a violent ocean storm.
From Port Medway, Nova Scotia, Canada.
5. For smaller boys a penile pun may be in order: “It’s cold out, especially if you leave it out.”

Hot
1. So hot the hens are layin’ hard-boiled eggs.
2. Hot enough to fry spit.
3. So hot and dry last week around Virden, frogs were poundin’ on the screen door, askin’ for a dipper of water.
Virden is in southern Manitoba on the Saskatchewan border in Canada.


Snow
My own favourite weather expression came into Canadian English from Ukrainian settlers in Manitoba. When I was a child in the 1940s, a snowfall with large flakes used to summon this phrase: “She’s comin’ down like dinner plates.” But years later I heard this description of a fluffy snowfall: “The old woman is pluckin’ her geese today.”

This is a direct translation of a Ukrainian folk saying that also shows up in Manitoba earlier in the 19th century.

Rain
1. Enough rain to choke a toad.
2. It’s so wet we’re shooting ducks in the pantry.

Wind
1. Blowin’ a gagger.
Ontario expression to describe a north wind blowing south off Georgian Bay.

WARNING: BRASS MONKEYS DEBUNKED HERE

2. That wind is strong enough to blow the nuts off a gang plough.
Said of a Saskatchewan storm. Many variants exist, for example, from New Brunswick: Wind strong enough to blow the nuts off the Miramichi Bridge. They are all probably based on: Cold enough to freeze the nuts off a brass monkey. Incidentally, there is not, in all the annals of British naval lexicography, one single printed record or reference of any piece of naval ordnance named a “brass monkey.” It was never an object that held cannonballs on a war ship. The expression means just what it says: if a monkey was made of brass, this cold would crack the brass. All the reputed etymologies that claim an origin in the British navy for this expression are to be viewed with suspicion, and are, in researched historical fact, nothing but claptrap. Bilge! Poppycock! Twaddle!

3. The wind is blowin’ and it’s too lazy to go around you.
4. It was so windy, my hen laid the same egg twice.
5. It’s a cold wind to calf your ass up against.
6. You can always tell people from Saskatchewan. When the wind stops blowing, they fall over.
7. It’s windy enough to blow the horns off a bull.
Direct translation of Canadian French: Il vente assez fort pour écorner un boeuf.

And we’ll end our weather watch with one obscure term from Scottish dialect, dreich ‘wet, dark, unpleasant weather.’



Bill Casselman,

June 12, 2016

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