Scottish words for snow

I’ll assume readers know that the ‘Eskimos have X words for snow’ idea is essentially a myth and a hackneyed journalistic trope. So I won’t elaborate on it here, except to note that the claim is so notorious in linguistic circles that it gave rise to snowclone, a handy term for this kind of clichéd phrasal template.

It turns out, though, that there are quite a few words for snow (and, OK, ice) in Scotland.* Ian Preston sent me a recent photo he took of an art installation in the lobby of the Cairngorm Funicular Railway, republished here with his permission:

[click to enlarge]

Arthur Watson - Scottish words for snow at Cairngorm Funicular Railway. Photo by Prof. Ian Preston

The piece is by Scottish artist Arthur Watson and colleagues and is part of the public art project Cairngorm – Reading a Landscape. At its centre is a woodcut of Coire an t-Sneachda (corrie of the snow), a glacial landform in the Cairngorms mountain range.

The 31 words and phrases that surround the image come from a glossary of ‘conditions of snow and ice in Scots, Gaelic, and travellers’ cant’, according to the Scottish Arts Council; artist Janet McKenzie says Watson is ‘particularly interested in the oral traditions of the fisher and traveller communities’.

Each term spoken aloud is a delight in itself, and taken together they constitute a poetic set:

 blin drift  mashlam  smoor
 brak  ondag  snaw bree
 clach-mheallain  owerblaw  snaw-wreath
 clag  skiff  sneachda
 clambainn  skifter  sneepa
 dry drift  skiftin  spunedrift
 eighre  skimmer  tirl
 feuchter  skirfin  wauff
 haar-frost  skirlie  yird drift
 liathreodhadh  smeuchter
 lying storm  smeuk

Irish speakers will recognise sneachda as cognate with Irish sneachta ‘snow’, while liathreodhadh matches Irish liathróid(í) ‘ball(s)’, though I don’t know what this signifies in the context of Scottish snow – hailstones, or snowballs? Clach-mheallain means hailstones anyway.

Other terms appear in the online Dictionary of the Scots Language, for example feuchter ‘a slight fall of snow’, owerblaw ‘to cover over or be covered with snow’, skiff ‘to rain or snow very slightly’, and yird drift ‘snow blown from the surface of the ground, drifting snow’.

McBain’s Etymological Dictionary of the Gaelic Language says eigh is ice, ‘hence eighre, oighre, Irish oighear, Early Irish aigred, Welsh eiry, snow’. It refers to deigh ‘ice’ (cf. Icelandic jökull), and says its initial d is prothetic – the sound was added to the start of the original word.


* This is probably true of any language in any area where snow falls, so long as you cast the lexical net wide enough dialectally and meteorologically.


21 Responses to Scottish words for snow

  1. Roger says:

    “Eskimo”, exonym, may be Standard English in some parts. In N. America it is relegated to parts of coastal Alaska, where some groups, the Yupik and Inupiat, still self-identify with that term, presumably when speaking English to outsiders. They reject “Inuit” because for them that too is exo.
    In Canada, I’m required to say “Inuit”, even if I’m not into it. Even so, “Inuit” is inaccurate, since at least one group in Canada’s Western Arctic self-identifies as Inuvialuit. And there used to be a Nestilingmiut on South Baffin, and so on. The present-day insistence on “Inuit” is tied to ethnic nationalism, mainly in Nunavut, Nunavik, and Greenland. But when I recite old-time anecdotes about the Arctic native, I’m still likely to say “Eskimo”.

    • aka says:

      I am glad to see [s]ome groups, the Yupik and Inupiat, still self-identify with [Eskimo], presumably when speaking English to outsiders.” A few years in Bethel AK made this seem so obvious. Increasingly it seem to be slipping into print.

  2. Roger says:

    Regarding that snowy vocabulary: The Dictionary of Canadianisms on Historical Principles (1991) has over a hundred entries to do with snow — in English, that is. Most of them are compounds; many refer to gadgets adapted for snow, or describe snowy birds and animals. A few are specific to types of snow, such as “snow-smoke”, which translates French “poudrerie”; and “snow-devil”, which reads as a snowy whirlwind; “snowshoe evil”, an ailment caused by strain; and “snowsnake”, folkloric for a kind of game.

  3. Roger says:

    And snow-slang: Jonathon Green’s Dict. of Slang has over 40 snowy entries referring mostly to low-life activities and types. His “snow-dropping” refers to theft of someone’s washing, “usu. women’s underwear”, while his “snowdrop” = U.S. military copper.

  4. Roger says:

    Most of the words on the list from A. Watson look like Scots English
    with a minority of Gaelic origin. But it looks nowhere certain to me that they all refer to snow or ice, except by extension:

    — “clag”, noun = clay, mud, and only by extension an “encumbrance, burden; fault, . . . a mess of food”, according to Warrack’s Scots Dialect Dict., with no mention of snow or ice (unless from a still more tenuous extension not found in Warrack). Nor as verb, either.

    — “mashlam”, too; for Warrack, it’s “mixed grain”.
    O.K., snow or ice can be granular.

    His “smoor” begins as a “stifling smoke”, jumps to a “drizzling mist or rain”, and as “smurr”, begins as a “fine rain” that only later becomes a “snow falling thickly”. (Well, that’s one, anyway).

    — “tirl”: it’s a “thrill, a vibration, a tremor, a twirl, a whirl, a fall over and over, an act of rotating, a bout, a short spell at anything, as of drinking, dancing [and here comes weather at last], a gentle breeze; and [finally] a substitute for the trundle of an old Shetland mill”.
    [Yes, “tirl” does look sort of Norn; and again all of these can by extension describe snow or ice.]

    — “tirl-o-win” in Warrack is a “good winnowing wind”; so there’s another weather reference, but still not a snowy-icy one; more to do with shaking out grain. O.K., snow or ice can be grain-like.

    Warrack, in fact, has a whole lot of tirl and tirly words, ongoing to tirly-wirly, tirry-mirry, tirry-wirry, which express fits of passion, quarrels, mirth and excitement. Thus speaketh Warrack.

    But nothing on “Tirra-lirra, by the river, sang Sir lancelot . . .”

    Who was Warrack, first name Alexander (?): He evidently compiled the Scots Dialect Dictionary, Serving as a glossary for Ramsay, Fergusson, Burns, Scott, Galt, minor poets, kailyard novelists and a host of other writers of the Scottish tongue (1911).

    his kailyard: a cottage garden. and his kailyard poet: see Wiki for critique.

    “kail” would probably translate as the store-bought kale, cousin to the cabbage, that I eat in salads.

    That’s the way to invent a nation (!)

  5. Stan says:

    Roger: Thanks for your thoughts on these words and related matters. Yes, I noticed that several of the terms (when I looked them up in the Dictionary of the Scots Language) had detailed entries that made no explicit mention of snow or ice, and seemed connectable only by extension. Maybe they acquired such meanings as obscure regionalisms or in varieties of travellers’ cant, or attached to the subject only obliquely before being assembled in the glossary referred to. It would be helpful to know what glossary was the source of these words, if only to establish its authority and reliability, but I didn’t investigate this.

  6. alexmccrae1546 says:

    @Roger: Appreciate your thoughtful, informative commentary and entailed lexicographic and ethnological/ anthropological research, here.

    I must confess, I indulged myself in a wee bit of an internal chuckle over your “… I’m not into it.”, referring to the apparent current formal convention in Canada regarding the appellation “Inuit” being used in ‘politically correct’ parlance, rather than the, some might argue, hackneyed, or perhaps less definitive catch-all term, “Eskimo”.

    I ‘intuited’ (groan) that your phrase— “not into it”, having come directly on the heels of the word “Inuit”, was an intentional attempt at some subtle cunning punning on your part? Did I intuit correctly?

    As a fellow Canuck, long an expat living here in Southern California, I duly appreciate your wry/ dry witty touch… eh?

    And on the subject of “snow” w/ a decidedly Canadian twist, who can forget “Snowbird”, that bouncy tune that jettisoned our young Nova Scotian songbird, Anne Murray, to pop music stardom, debuting way back in the mid-’60s.

    Or another super talented Nova Scotia native, the early country music great, Hank Snow, who was born in Brooklyn/ Queens County (not NYC), NS, ‘snow-deviling’, guitar pickin’, and yodeling his way to Nashville’s famed Grand Old Opry; taking his rightful place in the illustrious pantheon of bona fide country stars. But I digress.

    (Granted, I’m being a little silly here… but last time I checked, “silliness”, per say, is not a punishable crime.)

  7. Claire Stokes says:


    Love the snow list! SInce I read your post a few days ago, I’ve been thinking about it now and then.. and here in Minnesota I’m not aware of any special other terms for ‘snow’ other than ‘snow’. We call ‘ice’ basically.. ‘ice’, etc.. All this despite the fact that we may have snow on the ground from late October to early April (usually not that long). It seems with snow being that big a part of our lives, we should have more terms for it. Maybe it’s part of that plain-spoken thing we do.

    • Stan says:

      Claire: It’s a lovely collection of words! That is curious about Minnesota, but I suppose it’s nothing out of the ordinary. Scotland does seem unusually blessed in this respect. To take a comparable example, Ireland sees a lot of rain but doesn’t have many more terms for it than somewhere considerably drier – though we have some expressions in Irish that were imported into Hiberno-English, like “soft day” (meaning damp or showery).

      • Yes, true. And I realized after I wrote that – Minnesota wouldn’t have more English words about snow than anywhere else, really… but we don’t have any phrases etc… either. But, like you say, not so remarkable.
        With listening to Seamus last week after his passing (such a loss, although much remains with us forever), couldn’t help but notice his rain wordsmithing, like in The Rainstick: ‘glitter-drizzle, almost-breaths of air’.. Lovely.

  8. Claude says:

    RE: Inuit……I’m not into it either (pun or not) considering that, in the mid-sixties, when I lived on Baffin Island, in Pangnirtung, the natives were called Eskimos, each family identified by the Government with a number added to the letter E. Mind you, when you worked among them, after a while, you didn’t need a number to recognise anyone. They became friends with each a very strong, distinctive personality.

    I’m kind of happy that (be it Inuit or Eskimo) they’re now in charge of their own affairs, on their own land. I never found out from them how many words they used for snow. I can just tell you that there was plenty of snow, and that the winter was very long, very cold and very dark.

    • Stan says:

      Claude: Such winters would prove challenging to many people, I think. I do like the season, but am glad I don’t experience it in so extreme a form. As for words for snow, people generally aren’t the most accurate reporters of their own usage anyway. Ask a native English speaker and they’ll remember only the most common few, but they would acknowledge others when reminded of them.

  9. Sawney says:

    I notice that there’s a preponderance of words beginning with /s/ (+ consonant) in the list. Maybe there’s something in the ‘clustering’ hypothesis that “words that share a sound sometimes have something in common” (from Wikipedia, ‘Sound symbolism’)?
    Incidentally, my Concise Scots Dictionary gives one meaning of ‘smoor’/’smuir’ as “die from lack of air, esp by being buried in a snowdrift”.

  10. mrboa10 says:

    Hi Stan. Fascinating read,tho i’m sorry to say i’ve no comments concerning snowy affairs (i’m in Ghana,see?). But i’d very much appreciate a follow back. Thx.

  11. Stan says:

    Sawney: Some of those words are probably related etymologically, but I figure there’s a degree of sound symbolism at work too, certainly in the ski- set. Thanks for the note on smoor; I had been curious about it, and I wonder if that’s its sole snow-related sense.

    mrboa10: Thank you. I hoped it would be of interest to people regardless of how much snow their local climates offered. (Ireland’s has some, though in the west some winters there is very little.)

  12. […] what makes learning a language difficult. Stan Carey delighted us with Scottish words for snow. Arika Okrent gave us 14 Swedish words that […]

  13. […] grammar is “bad”, and the third plays on the prototypical snowclone of Eskimos having forty words for snow. (Or even six billion.) […]

  14. Martha says:

    Fascinating read, As a language student am learning alot

  15. Eòghann P. says:

    Haló, a charaid: ‘Liathreòthadh’ – or, better, ‘liath-reòthadh’ with the hyphen – is ‘hoar frost’ or, as we prefer to call it in Scots, the ‘harr’. ‘Liath’ in Gaelic is a colour-word, which covers the spectrum from steely grey through silver to the intense light blue of the sky in winter (in northern climes, at least). It is also used to describe hair as it loses its hue and turns to grey. As you may well know, ‘am Fear Liath Mór’ – the ‘Great Grey Man’ – is the legendary figure who is reputed to haunt some of the Cairngorm slopes, to the dread of hillwalkers and climbers. The alternative explanation is that ‘he’ is a Brocken-like phenomenon created by the prevailing light and climactic conditions, which gives the impression of a huge, shadowy being. Either way, he is definitely ‘liath’ In the Gaelic tradition.

    Mind how you go – thoiribh an aire!

    Is mise le meas,

    Eòghann P.

    • Stan Carey says:

      Dia duit, a chara. Many thanks for your explanation of liath-reòthadh and of the use of liath in Scottish Gaelic. I’ve never been among the Cairngorm slopes, but I have encountered the Brocken spectre on Croagh Patrick in the west of Ireland, and coincidentally was talking about it at the weekend when I was on that mountain again. Next time I see it – or ‘him’ – I will have some Scottish climbing lore to share!

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