Bill Casselman

At the Wording Desk

Increase your English vocabulary by learning new words about the wind.

Many of us North-Americans have just suffered through days of high, destructive winds. “Gusty” was said aloud during a million TV weather forecasts. Is it worth hunting for a less-used adjective than gusty or gusting? Say this phrase aloud, “A gustful blow.” Can you hear the wind anew? Yes! Gustful awakens a careful reader to your word choice. A synonym-search almost always repays the questing wordlover.

Of course, the conventional synonyms of gusty are available, somewhat tired adjectives like breezy, blowy, blustery, gusty, wild, stormy, inclement, squally and tempestuous. But they are yawn-inducing. What about searching for rarer alternatives?

Ventus
If you know a little Latin, you might happen upon ventose, from the old Roman word for wind, ventus and its adjective of abundance, ventosus ‘abounding in winds, windy.’ Incidentally, wind and ventus are cognates; that is, they share the same Proto-Indo-European root, a present participial formation *wēnto- of the PIE root *wē ‘to blow.’ Wind and ventus are very old words. Fellow cognates appear in other Indo-European languages like Welsh gwynt, Sanskrit vata and the language spoken by the Vikings, Old Norse vindr. But ventose may be too rare, too scientific an adjective, to be used far outside its ordained parameters of established application.

Wind’s most surprising relative may our English verb to winnow. In Old English it was windwian ‘to expose grain to a current of wind to separate the chaff and refuse from the kernels useful for food, sometimes by means of an Anglo-Saxon winnowing-sieve windwigsife.

A Sweet Daub of Poesy?
Is it a wind that seems to be blowing all over the place, in changing directions? Then perhaps it is a wanton wind. The alliteration makes the use of wanton a trifle poetic. But poetic use of words should not merit a jail sentence of more than three weeks for an errant writer!

Borrowing adjectives not usually associated with wind descriptions may sometimes be apt. A person is usually garrulous, that is, talkative, but what about a wind pouring through brittle autumn leaves? Could such a fall wind not be garrulous, a leaf-chattering breeze.

Perhaps a few Greek-rooted borrowings would work? The Greek word for wind is anemos ἄνεμος. For weather forecasters, an anemometer is a scientific instrument that measures the force of the wind. But a bending tree on a gusty night could be an anemometer too.

A feminine patronymic suffix in classical Greek is –ώνη pronounced –ownee, so that our quivering spring flower, the anemone, has a literal meaning ‘daughter of the wind,’ if indeed the flower’s name came from Greek or was at least influenced by the Greek word for wind. There is some evidence that anemone may be ultimately of Hebrew provenance.

Stay Hidden, O Rarity!
On the other hand some rare words deserve to remain rare. They even sound inappropriate. Anemious was a botanical adjective once used to describe plants growing in the wind or thriving in exposed places. It has a Greek root in the Attic adjective ἀνέμιος anemios ‘windy.’ But, contrary to the sense of ‘hardy,’ its sound suggests anemic ‘weak, bloodless, lacking in vigor’ from an entirely different Greek word, namely ἀναιμία anaimia = Greek a- a negative prefix called alpha privative meaning ‘not’ + -n- an infix called nu movable added to words to ease pronunciation particularly where two vowels come together + Greek αἷμα haima, hema ‘blood’ with its many English medical derivatives like hematic, hematosis and hematology.

Compounding Adjectives
Do not be afraid, as many timid modern writers are, of making up compound adjectives to describe a wind. In the use of compound adjectives, you might not be able, in modern expository prose, to get away with Tennyson’s Victorian excess, namely “the dew-impearléd winds of dawn” from his “Ode to Memory.” But you could probably in print refer to the signboard-shredding wind off the sea tonight.

Stark similes and metaphors add clout to a wind’s description. Once I opened a mystery story with this line: “A strong wind low to the ground wandered along the lakeshore like an escaped mental patient.” But several escaped mental patients gave me shit for mocking their plight.

Vivid verbs strengthen a sentence: As shearing hurricane winds attacked the roof, shingles shrieked.

As Gramps Used to Say
Often an old folk saying spurs a tired sentence to a gallop. Consider seven folk expressions to describe high winds:

1. Blowin’ a gagger.
In Ontario, Canada, this is a provincial expression to describe a north wind blowing south off Georgian Bay.
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, as several inferior word websites attest, 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.
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.


Don’t Be Wary of Odd Words
One clod of an editor under whom I once labored, briefly, used to cross out all long words with his red pencil and, scratching his underarms with both hands like a chimp, would roar at the offending scribe this pithy observation, “Real writers don’t use dictionaries.” Jeepers, guess that leaves out of the fold stumblebums like James Joyce, John Milton, Virginia Woolf and a few other losers? Sometimes it is worth disobeying nincompoops and worth riffling the pages of a dictionary to find an obscure word and revive it, bring it back into the light of use and contemplation. Consider this sentence: The spring zephyrs blowing through the canyon acted like an old Italian ventiduct, a passage bringing fresh or cool air into the room of a villa or an apartment, from Latin ventus ‘wind’ + ductus ‘a channelling, a leading through,’ so that the new air ventilates the room.

Oh No! You Mean: Just Make up a Word!
The more dextrous and knowledgeable of etymologists may wish to make up, from good Greek and Latin roots, a pseudo-scientific term. There is a legitimate adjective in botany, aerotropic, said of the growing roots of plants which turn toward sources of air. So the opposite might be said of trees and shrubs in a wind storm, bending away from the source of air or being antaerotropic. Such an ungainly verbal monstrosity would only be used humorously, perhaps to mock a weather forecast containing too much meteorological jargon.

We conclude with that famous, optimistic question from the last lines of “Ode to the West Wind” (1820 CE) by Percy Bysshe Shelley:
“The trumpet of a prophecy! O Wind, if
If Winter comes, can Spring be far behind?




Bill Casselman, April 05, 2018

Copyright 2018 by William Gordon Casselman


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