A fearsome combination


A blizzard, as we all know very well, is an unpleasant combination of snow and strong winds. The word is believed to be American and dates, in its present meaning, from the second half of the last century. But its real origins and etymology are far from clear.

One explanation offered is that it comes from Iowa. Many of the early settlers in that State, apparently, came from Germany, and when they experienced the severe winter storms on the Great Plains, they would exclaim: "Der Sturm kommt blitzartig" ("The storm comes lightning-like"). The transition from blitzartig to "blizzard", it is suggested, is a natural progression in linguistics.

Some prefer to recall that back in the 1820s a blizzard, in the old Wild West vocabulary, meant a whiff of gunshot; Davy Crockett, we are told, used the word in this way when he took "a blizzard" at some buffalo. But to others, the word is onomatopoeic, intended to convey in sound the character of the phenomenon.

Whatever the origins of the name, a real blizzard is a very fearsome thing. In the cold, northern interiors of continents in wintertime, snow often falls in the form of fine, dry crystals, rather than in the familiar large flakes.

If the wind blows violently in such conditions, the "snowdust" is swept continually from the ground, while at the same time snow may be falling also from the clouds, and the raging winds are soon opaque with the flurrying white particles.

The extreme cold, the bewilderment produced by the howling gale, and the overlapping swirls of dancing snow, all combine to produce for the unwary traveller a complete, and sometimes fatal, loss of orientation.

One meteorologist, familiar with such phenomena in Antarctica, has described the feeling graphically: "In a true blizzard the wind is accompanied by clouds of driven snow. The snow is in the form of exceedingly fine grains which penetrate through the smallest chink or hole in a house or tent.

"The whole air appears to be full of drift, so that it is impossible to see any great distance, and when it is at its worst, even a tent cannot be seen for more than a few yards. Not only does the drift make it difficult to see, but anyone exposed to it seems to become bewildered and to lose all power of thinking clearly.

"For these reasons it is sheer folly to attempt to travel in a blizzard, even when the temperature is relatively high and the wind is at one's back."