LINGUIST List 4.468

Tue 15 Jun 1993

FYI: Just for fun: Meteorological linguistics

Editor for this issue: <>


  1. , (Forwarded) Meteorological expressions: a light

Message 1: (Forwarded) Meteorological expressions: a light

Date: 14 Jun 93 12:19:41 GMT-120(Forwarded) Meteorological expressions: a light
From: <>
Subject: (Forwarded) Meteorological expressions: a light

The following message was sent to me by my (non-linguist) colleague
Bob ("The Iowan") Palmer ( I thought it
might amuse those interested in speech act theory

Simon Corston

 During your visit to the rural midwest, there is no safer
subject to begin a conversation with a stranger than what mother
nature is doing at the moment. Despite its security, weather
conversations can be ice breakers or ice makers, depending on your
command of the vernacular and the time of year your conversation
takes place. If you are visiting in January and attempt to begin
a conversation by saying, "Man, it's cold here.", you are
guaranteeing yourself a very brief, dead end conversation that will
leave you feeling colder than you already are. The common response
to this approach by a local to an outsider is, "It sure is." and
then walk away. As simple and sure as this approach may seem to
the visitor, it sends all the wrong signals to the local host. In
the eyes and mind of the rural midwesterner, the "Man, its cold
here." comment is telling him something that he already knows.
Three months before you arrived, almost everyone over the age of 55
packed up the Impala and escaped to warmer weather in Arizona,
Florida and south Texas. Since their departure, they have been
sending postcards reminding your host of where they are, and he's
not. Also, this comment lowers the locals respect for your opinion
and expectations he may have had for you. "It sure is." is not the
simple retort it may seem. The words are few, but the message is
much more complex than greets the numbed senses of the outsider.
In verbally saying "It sure is.", the message meant to be conveyed,
if it was expressed verbally, would more likely than not be, "I
YOU EXPECT, KEY WEST?!" There are several reasons why this is not
often expressed verbally. During the winter, midwesterners are
generally, as a group, much more introverted than, say Texans for
example. This is not due to a shortcoming in socialization or
sophistication, rather it is an attempt to save energy so as it can
be put to good use later, when it is needed most.
 In evaluating responses to questions that deal with a socially
complex situation, such as the weather, it is always safe to assume
that the reason for the elicited response may not be what it seems.
Another quite plausible reason for the, "It sure is." followed by
the persons departure may have been that you reminded him that it
is cold, that he's cold and it's time to go inside and get warmed


 Before one can truly enjoy the fruits of a successful weather
conversation, the foundations for talking intelligently on such a
vital subject must first be laid. This groundwork is the
vernacular, or terms that are used in conversation. The use of
these terms vary from area to area in the midwest, but the
differences are recognized by all as being a variation off the
general midwestern weather theme. Thus, it is better to
familiarize yourself to one areas quirks than to try and learn them
all. Learning them all guarantees you an outsiders status because
no one is supposed to know exactly what you are talking about all
the time.
 The version that is provided here is "Upper-west-of-the-
version. Again, local versions of this dialect exist, however for
the average beginner, these differences will be mostly


 Spittin' Snow
 There are several key phrases and terms that are commonly
used, rephrased, and used again in different contexts. It is most
important to always use the correct term in the correct context.
For example: Oftentimes during late fall and early winter, mother
nature provides us with a condition of light, intermittent wet
snowfall that is never too awful abundant. When this condition
exists, it is said to be "spitting, or spittin' snow". Spitting
snow is a relatively new term, not appearing in the midwestern
weather vernacular until the early 1920's. Its appearance
coincided with the arrival of the automobile, which suggests the
term may be derived by metaphor as a result of how this type of
snow appears on the autos windshield. When this term became
popular, another, older term for the same condition - "chippin'
snow" fell out of use. In using this term, it would be correct say,
"I don't mind driving when it's just spittin' a little, but you
won't see me out there if it gets any worse." Spitting is a term
that is to only be used when discussing snow. The worst context
that you could use this term in however would be during a light
shower in the middle of spring or summer. If you were to say for
example, "Boy I hope this spittin' shower will be enough to settle
the dust (We'll get to that term later)." You would probably be
slapped if you were in the presence of a lady for imagining, let
alone saying, something that vulgar.
 In the springtime when this same condition exists, it no
longer is spitting snow, rather it is "trying to rain." To use
"spittin' snow" in April or May is paramount to "Spittin' rain",
which, as you know, is wholly unacceptable. The reason behind this
very significant difference is in timing. No one in April or May
wants anything more to do with winter, and you are putting yourself
at risk by even suggesting that there may be another blizzard just
around the corner.

 Raining cats and dogs

 One of the most popular ways of describing a heavy spring,
summer, or fall rainfall is its "raining cats and dogs". It does
not, of course actually rain cats and dogs. However, this term
appears to have been derived out of incident that took place during
the summer of 1922 in Watapama Iowa. Watapama (don't bother to
look for it on a map, it's no longer there), located on picturesque
Lake Olie (it's not there anymore either), was caught in the center
of some climatological catastrophe (that's why neither one still
exist - you can't even find the spot on the map where they used to
be). Eyewitness reports say that Watapama and Lake Olie were
pulled off the planet in some "really strong updraft". For several
weeks after this natural catastrophe, much of the upper midwest
experienced rainfall that contained bits and pieces of Watapama,
cars, tin cups, cows and of course, dogs and cats. Leland Anderson
of Sodom Gomorrah was, according to local legend, the first person
to use the phrase "raining cats and dogs", after three rat terriers
and five siamese cats rained down on his potato and carrot garden.
There are actually several different stories revolving around where
the term "raining cats and dogs" comes from, however this seems to
be the most credible one available.
 If during your visit to the midwest a discussion comes up
debating the origins of this term, it is best to avoid partaking in
this conversation, unless you are well versed in the version that
you find to be the most credible, and are willing to go to
fisticuffs to support your statements.
Mail to author|Respond to list|Read more issues|LINGUIST home page|Top of issue