Fifty Words for Snow is a beautiful hardback book which rather unusually uses blue print perhaps reflecting the shade we associate with the cold. I love snow, perhaps because it’s not something we see very often here in Portobello since we’re right by the sea.
Nancy Campbell takes her readers on a trip around the cold places of the world. I enjoyed picking words and places at random and finding out the meanings, history and use of the various words associated with snow. The beautifully written book saw me dreaming of snow this winter.
Some words are familiar such as avalanche (French) or snowboarding (where we hear about the American sign language for this word). Some words we can easily guess the meaning such as snöängel in Swedish. Others are likely unfathomable until the author enlightens us – tykky (Finnish), Himá (Sanskrit). Even some of the words in English such as sparrow batch (Newfoundland English) and suncups are likely to be unfamiliar and need defining.
The book isn’t just about just the words and stories associated with snow but also refers to climate change and how many places do not get so much snow these days. For example, right at the beginning of the book we learn of cave art in Wales which clearly depicts reindeer whereas now changes in the climate mean they are confined to the far north.
I’m going to highlight just a few of the words which appealed to me but I am sure that each reader will find their own favourites.
As I mentioned already, Swedish snöängel probably won’t need much translating. Snow angels are written about in many children’s books but as the author says, there are many adults who also can’t resist making snow angels! “The shape of the human body is remade as divine just by moving our limbs, the arms waving up and down, and the legs sweeping apart to suggest the dress. Stand up, look back and it is as if an angel fell to Earth. “
I was particularly taken with hundslappadrífa, an Icelandic word. I’d guessed it was something to do with dogs and thought maybe something to do with sled dogs getting caught up in a snow drift. But no, rather wonderfully it means snowflakes as big as a dog’s paw! These are the kind of big fluffy snowflakes which quickly cover a street and are ideal for making snowballs. Hundslappadrífa is also a song by an Icelandic group called Sigur Rós and there is some exploration of their work but also other pieces of music inspired by snow Waltz of the Snowflakes by Tchaikovsky or Purple Snowflakes by Marvin Gaye.
I have of course to mention the Scottish word included which is smoor and I have to confess that I hadn’t heard of it before, even though it’s in one of Burns’ most famous poems Tam O’Shanter. Smoor means to perish in a snowdrift and I was fascinated reading about how the word is found in James Hogg’s 1807 book about shepherding, where he talks about whole flocks of sheep being smoored by snowdrifts on the hills. The history of harsh winters in late 18th century Scotland is described along with advice on the best kind of structures to build to protect your sheep from being smoored. (A round, stone walled structure, should you be interested.)
Throughout the book you will find gorgeous illustrations of snowflakes showing just how beautiful they are. These illustrations are the first known photographs of snow, by Wilson Bentley (who died in 1931).
Fifty Words for Snow would make a beautiful Christmas gift for any chionophile – that’s a person who loves cold weather or snow. It is lyrically written and a wealth of information, a book that will be treasured.
My thanks to Alison Menzies for sending me a copy of the book for review. Fifty Words for Snow is available now in hardback and as an ebook. It’s such a beautiful book though that I highly recommend you buy a physical copy. You will find buying options for various retailers on the Elliott & Thompson website here: Fifty Words for Snow
From the back of the book
Snow. Every language has its own words for the feather-like flakes that come from the sky. In Japanese we find Yuki-onna – a ‘snow woman’ who drifts through the frosted land. In Icelandic falls Hundslappadrifa – ‘big as a dog’s paw’. And in Maori we meet Huka-rere – ‘one of the children of rain and wind’.
From mountain tops and frozen seas to city parks and desert hills, writer and Arctic traveller Nancy Campbell digs deep into the meanings of fifty words for snow. Under her gaze, each of these linguistic snow crystals offers a whole world of myth and story.
About the author
Nancy Campbell is an award-winning writer, described as ‘deft, dangerous and dazzling’ by the Poet Laureate, Carol Ann Duffy. Her travels in the Arctic between 2010 and 2017 have resulted in several projects responding to the environment, most recently The Library of Ice: Readings in a Cold Climate (S&S), which was longlisted for the Rathbones Folio Prize 2019. Her previous book on the polar environment, Disko Bay, was shortlisted for the Forward Prize for Best First Collection in 2016. She has been a Marie Claire ‘Wonder Woman’, a Hawthornden Fellow and Visual and Performing Artist in Residence at Oxford University. She is currently a Literature Fellow at Internationales Kunstlerhaus Villa Concordia in Bamberg, Germany.