While the “Eskimos have 100 words for snow” debate remains up in the (cold, cold) air, we do know—thanks in large part to the folks at the Dictionary of American Regional English (DARE)—that Americans have no lack of idioms for the chilly white stuff. Here are 15 of them from all over the United States.
1. CAT’S TRACK
When there’s a light fall of snow, you can call it cat’s track, a term used in Maine, Massachusetts, Illinois, and Wisconsin. A resident from the Badger State says, “If there is enough snow to track a cat, there has been a snowfall.” Conversely, not much snow can be described as “not enough snow to track a cat.”
Skift refers to a light fall of snow, according to DARE, as well as a “thin layer of snow or frost on the ground, or of ice on water.” The use of the term is widespread across the U.S. except in the Northeast, South, and Southwest.
If someone in Iowa, Kentucky, Indiana, or north-central Arkansas says, “Watch out for that skimp,” better take heed. They’re talking about a thin layer of ice or snow. Skimp can also be a verb meaning to freeze in a thin coating.
4. GOOSE DOWN
Get a light snow in Alabama? You can call it goose down.
In Vermont, large, soft flakes of snow might be referred to as goosefeathers.
6. THE OLD WOMAN IS PICKING HER GEESE
This colorful idiom for “It’s snowing” is especially used in the Appalachians, along with “The old woman’s a-losin’ her feathers.” Meanwhile, in Kentucky, you might hear Aunt Dinah’s picking her geese.
Another term for a light dusting or flurry of snow, this time in Delaware. Scutch might come from scuds, a word of Scottish origin meaning ale or beer.
8. SNOW SQUALL
Why say snow shower when you can say snow squall? This chiefly Northeast saying refers to “a sudden snowstorm of short duration.” Its earliest recorded usage in American English is from 1775.
9. FLOUR-SIFTER SNOW
The next time you’re in Montana surrounded by small-flaked snow, you can say, “We’ve got some flour-sifter snow!”
10. CORN SNOW
You know it and you hate it: that granular, kernel-like snow that’s the result of repeated thawing and freezing. The term corn snow is used in Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Oregon.
11. HOMINY SNOW
If grits are more up your alley, there’s hominy snow, a saying native to the South Midland states. The word hominy, referring to a kind of boiled ground corn, is Native American in origin, possibly coming from the Algonquian uskatahomen, “parched corn.”
This term in northeast Washington and southwest Oregon for a snow pellet that’s “somewhat like hail” is probably a variant on graupel, “soft hail.” Graupel is German in origin and comes from graupel wetter, which translates literally as “sleet weather.”
While it might sound like a cross between a snort and a snicker, this Upper Midwest term actually refers to a mix of windblown snow and dirt. The moniker itself is a blend too, namely of the words—you guessed it—snow and dirt.
Back in the day, New Englanders called slush sposh, which also referred to mud. The word is probably imitative in origin and might be influenced by words like slush, slosh, and splash.
Ever walk in snow so deep you sink with every step? That’s post-holing or post-holing it, a saying in Colorado, Arkansas, Montana, and northwest Massachusetts. The post here refers to a fence post and hole to the hole created to secure it in the ground. Now we just need a word for sinking up to your knee when you step off a curb into slush that you’ve mistaken for ice.
Horses may no longer be the dominant form of transportation in the U.S., but the legacy of our horseback-riding history lives on in language. When telling people off, we still use the phrase “... and the horse you rode in on.” These days, it’s rare for anyone you're telling to go screw themselves to actually be an equestrian, so where did “and the horse you rode in on” come from, anyway?
Well, let’s start with the basics. The phrase is, essentially, an intensifier, one typically appended to the phrase “F*** you.” As the public radio show "A Way With Words" puts it, it’s usually aimed at “someone who’s full of himself and unwelcome to boot.” As co-host and lexicographer Grant Barrett explains, “instead of just insulting you, they want to insult your whole circumstance.”
The phrase can be traced back to at least the 1950s, but it may be even older than that, since, as Barrett notes, plenty of crude language didn’t make it into print in the early 20th century. He suggests that it could have been in wide use even prior to World War II.
In 1998, William Safire of The New York Times tracked down several novels that employed the term, including The Friends of Eddie Coyle (1972) and No Bugles, No Drums (1976). The literary editor of the latter book, Michael Seidman, told Safire that he heard the term growing up in the Bronx just after the Korean War, leading the journalist to peg the origin of the phrase to at least the late 1950s.
The phrase has had some pretty die-hard fans over the years, too. Donald Regan, who was Secretary of the Treasury under Ronald Reagan from 1981 through 1984, worked it into his official Treasury Department portrait. You can see a title along the spine of a book in the background of the painting. It reads: “And the Horse You Rode In On,” apparently one of Regan’s favorite sayings. (The book in the painting didn't refer to a real book, but there have since been a few published that bear similar names, like Clinton strategist James Carville’s book …and the Horse He Rode In On: The People V. Kenneth Starr and Dakota McFadzean’s 2013 book of comics Other Stories And the Horse You Rode In On.)
It seems that even in a world where almost no one rides in on a horse, insulting a man’s steed is a timeless burn.
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