The different words for snow and their amazing origins

Thai snow, granulated snow and snow that is as big as a dog’s paw – there are hundreds of words for snow across the globe.

Every language has its own words for snow – some dialects boast hundreds that describe the way snow falls, settles and even melts.

British writer Nancy Campbell became fascinated by snow while travelling in the Arctic and compiled her book Fifty Words for Snow, revealing what these wintery flakes mean to different cultures.

In Japan, for example, a “snow woman” drifts through the frosted lands, while in New Guinea snow falls like cotton and in Latvia a blizzard of skylarks describes heavy snow in late spring.

A snow scene in the Scottish highlands, with a snow covered tree in the foreground and white mountains rising up in the distanceCredit: Shutterstock / Nancy Parisi

A global snow journey

Snow has different meanings for different cultures

Author Campbell says: “Fifty Words for Snow is a journey to discover snow in cultures around the world, through different languages. It is possible to see back into the distant past and trace the historical movement of people through a single unit of meaning – in Europe for example many words (snow, snee, nieve, etc) stem from the same root of ancient Latin and Greek.

“Inevitably a book about climate also looks forward, considering what we miss, as every winter in many countries, we see fewer and fewer snowflakes and some years now, none at all.”

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Fifty Words for Snow

Here are some of our favourite words for snow:

1. Hundslappadrífa

‘Snowflakes as big as a dog’s paw’

Hundslappadrífa is Icelandic for snowflakes as big as a dog’s paw. They describe large snowflakes that cluster together and fall swiftly and softly from clouds in calm weather. The term first appeared in print in a newspaper report in 1898.

2. Tykky

Thick snow on tree branches

Tykky is Finnish for the thick snow that accumulates on tree branches and other structures. Tykky (or tykkylumi) accumulates throughout the winter in the cold northern regions of Finland.

Sometimes heavy tykkylumi will cover a tree entirely – a tall spruce can hold up to three tonnes of snow and trees have adapted by growing shorter branches so they don’t break under the load.

Often tykky trees are so heavily matted with snow that their shape is changed, where they bow under the weight or slender crowns slump downwards.

3. Cheotnun

First snow

Cheotnun is Korean for first snow. The word for snow in Korean (nun) is the same word as is used for eye. So if you experience the first snowfall of the year – cheotnun – with someone you have eyes for, it is said that true love will drift into your arms.

4. Suncups

Hollows in melting snow surfaces

Suncups is an English word for the shallow hollows that sometimes form in snowfields. They can be as tiny as a watch face or larger than the dial of a grandfather clock.

The honeycomb pattern is created when a light breeze encourages evaporation from the snow ridges, while the sun radiates in the grooves between them, melting the depressions. The hollows evaporate faster than the points, growing deeper and deeper.

5. Seanas

Granulated snow

The Sami people live in Norway’s Lapland. They are traditionally reindeer herders and their language reflects their intimate relationship with the environment. The rich terminology for snow and ice includes words to describe the way snow falls, where it lies, its depth, density and temperature.

One of their most significant types of snow is seanas, or loose granulated snow which improves grazing conditions as it is easier for the reindeer to dig through seanas to the lichen growing beneath with their hooves. It also melts rapidly providing clean water for travellers.

6. Hima

The Thai word for snow

It has snowed only once in Thailand – in Chiang Rai in 7 January 1955. It settled for about 14 hours before melting. This odd occurrence is the only officially recorded case of snow in Thailand.

In a tropical region, usually characterised by monsoons, this event has gained notoriety, but even if most people alive in Thailand now have never woken to snow, at least they have a word for it.

Phillipa Cherryson

Written by Phillipa Cherryson she/her

Updated:

Phillipa Cherryson is a senior digital editor for Saga Exceptional. Phillipa has been a journalist for 30 years, writing for local and national newspapers, UK magazines and reporting onscreen for ITV. In her spare time she loves the outdoors and is a trainee mountain leader and Ordnance Survey Champion.

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