August 11, 2006

Eight terms for snow crusts

The idea that there are dozens of Eskimo words for snow is (mostly) an urban myth, but in English, we have at least eight different terms for a snow crust. These are from the Glossary of Meteorology at the American Meteorological Society by way of Interesting Thing of the Day:

  1. snow crust: the general term for any hard surface on snow
  2. sun crust: a crust formed when the sun melts the top layer of snow, and then it refreezes
  3. rain crust: a crust formed when rain falls on snow and then freezes
  4. spring crust: a crust formed when warmer weather (but not necessarily sunshine) melts the top layer of snow and it refreezes
  5. wind crust: a crust that forms when wind packs down a layer of snow that has already been deposited
  6. wind slab: a crust in which the wind packs the snow at the same time as it’s being deposited
  7. ice crust: a crust that forms when water (from whatever source) flows onto the surface of snow and then freezes
  8. film crust: a very thin ice crust

6 Responses to “Eight terms for snow crusts”

  1. MPWaddington said:

    I am sure you are incorrect when you say that the Inuit words for types of snow and snow conditions is an urban myth. Recheck your facts before making such statements.

  2. Joe Kissell said:

    MPWaddington: Thanks for your comment. I did indeed check my sources! If you read the original article I referenced (Snow Crusts), you’ll see them all listed in the “More Information” section at the bottom. If you have sources that say otherwise, I’d be interested to see them. Incidentally, in the same article, I clarify why, in this particular usage, the term “Eskimo” is linguistically correct and “Inuit” is not.

  3. Gillian said:

    A good source for a discussion of the origin of the claim that there are anything from 16 to 400 words for snow in Inuit languages can be found here: Geoff Pullum, The great Eskimo vocabulary hoax. The original, false, information came from some poor research on the part of Benjamin Lee Whorf. For further discussion, including a long list of the snow words English has, see this site: I’m sure there are others, but this is very accessible for the layperson.

  4. Joe Kissell said:

    Gillian: Thanks for the helpful references!

  5. Lex.Darknet said:

    Smilla’s Sense of Snow (1997)– if I’m not sadly mistaken — makes reference to the number of words for snow in the language. Just a note.

  6. Joe Kissell said:

    Lex: I enjoyed Smilla’s Sense of Snow (both the book and the movie), though I can’t recall offhand its discussion of snow words.