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A Word in Season: Blizzard




By Anatoly Liberman

Every now and then, some words arouse public curiosity and produce a torrent of correspondence: people write letters to the editors, argue with one another, and offer etymological conjectures. In the past, Notes and Queries on both sides of the Atlantic, The Athenaeum, and The Nation regularly served as an outlet for this type of exchange. It is hard to believe how much ink (yes, in the past writers used ink: look it up in some good dictionary) was wasted on the history of theodolite “an instrument for measuring angles; level, bubble,” a word that hardly anyone remembers today (my spell-check suggested that I replace it with theologize, but I refused). A similar case is blizzard. Alongside the predictable attempts to trace the word to its source (English? German? Irish?), the fateful question—British or American?—was broached again and again. On one hand, it is a pity to cede territory; on the other, who needs what is not one’s own? Modern dictionaries make cautious suggestions about the etymology of blizzard or say “origin unknown” (better solidly safe than eternally sorry). And yet we know almost everything we need about the rise and development of this word.

As usual, a good deal depends on how we define “know.” If it means discovering the person who on a certain day coined the word and explained his or her motivation for coming up with it, the origin of few words will ever be “known.” But if we strive to reconstruct the circumstances in which our word could have arisen and show that our reconstruction does not run counter to the capricious laws of semantics and the rigid laws of phonetics, our chance of success will often be high.

Here are a few points. Although blizzard ends in the suffix –ard, it need not be equal to the transparent sum of blizz– and –ard. Bastard, buzzard, coward, dastard, gizzard, haggard, and niggard, let alone billiard, placard, and poniard, yield no meaningful roots after the subtraction of –ard (bastards have nothing to do with bast, buzzards do not buzz, and cowards are not cowherds, while dast-, gizz-, and the others do not even exist as separate entities), but drunkard, braggart, and dullard do fall into two recognizable components each: a drunkard is a drunk, braggarts are prone to bragging, and dullards are dolts. Blizz “rainstorm” has been attested, but it had minimal currency. Now to the country of origin. The family name Blizzard, with one z or two, has been around for centuries, but the derivation of the name and its ties with the noun blizzard are uncertain. Blizzer, blizzom, blizzomer, and even the past participle blizzarded have been recorded in British dialects. According to the recollections of an old lady, the following charm was recited in Yorkshire at the beginning of the 19th century: “From wizards, and blizzards, and long-tailed buzzards, / From things as flies, and things as creeps through other folks’ hedges, / Good Lord, deliver us.” This is gibberish, and the woman had no idea what blizzards meant, but the word stuck in her memory. The Century Dictionary makes the reasonable assumption that blizzard “existed almost unrecognized in British provincial use, whence it passed into American use.”

Thanks to a thorough investigation of Allen Walker Read, we know that in 1765 the form Blizard (with one z) appeared as the name of a Massachusetts ship. There is no one to ask why this name was chosen. Did Mr. Blizard own the ship? Or was it supposed to carry a message comparable to Formidable and Invincible? From 1829 on we have an uninterrupted record of the word’s use, and these are its meanings (in the order of appearance, as they say in theater programs): “a violent blow” (presumably a fisticuff) (1829), “a rifle shot” (1834), “a volley of words” (1835), “a hard strike in baseball” (1836), “a hit from an arrow” (1856). A poetaster used blizzard as some sort of interjection or filler with the vague meaning “quick.” In the early eighties, blizzard, the noun and the verb, turned up with the significations “an alcoholic drink; a sudden storm; discharge of musketry; to move at high velocity; to shoot a shotgun.” The great day in the history of blizzard was March 14, 1870. “The first storm of which there is any record came on the 14th of March, 1870, and was for years remembered as the great blizzard. There had been storms before, many of them every winter, but the one in the spring of 1870 came at a time not expected” (quoted by Read). The place of action is Iowa, and it is from there that blizzard “a snowstorm” spread to the rest of the country, to become eventually known in England as well. Its other meanings were soon forgotten. Thus, it is not the word blizzard but its current meaning that can be called an Americanism.

Despite the “origin unknown” stigma attached to blizzard, most researchers (and I mean researchers, not the authors of fanciful or folk etymological hypotheses) have offered similar derivations of our word. The original sense of blizzard must have been “a violent outburst,” and bluster immediately comes to mind as a word of nearly the same sound shape and meaning. The groups bl- and b…l render various sound effects: consider babble, blob, burble, bubble, bobolink (a bird’s name), and blow among others. Presumably, bluster and bliz(z) belonged to that group. Such words may never acquire broader meanings, but a metaphor occasionally gives them greater exposure. For example, buzz, to quote the OED, means “to make a sibilant humming sound” (oh, the aptness and beauty of such definitions!). The appearance of the noun buzzword allowed buzz to increases its scope of application, while the polite advice to an importune person to buzz off weakened its ties with sibilant flies and mosquitoes still further. Cattle running away from the swarms of buzzing horseflies were called bisig in the old language; this is the most likely origin of the adjective busy and its Dutch cognate bezig (originally “incessantly occupied”: compare busybody). Blizz, like buzz, must have existed on the outskirts of spoken English for an indefinite period of time. To be sure, we cannot know when it arose. In similar fashion, we have no way of knowing when puff, hush, whew, and their ilk first emerged in the language. Nor do we care. Someone added a living suffix to bliz(z) and produced blizzard. We should not ask who expanded bliz(z) into blizzard and when. As long as the suffix remained productive, it could happen in any place at any time.

So this is the solution of the puzzle. In British rural speech, there existed a sound imitative complex blizz expressing the idea of great quickness. When the suffix –ard was added to it, the new word began to denote all kinds of things having an immediate effect on its victim, from “a gunshot” to “an intoxicating drink.” Most records are from American English. In 1870, in Iowa, a violent snowstorm was called a blizzard. Storms and hurricanes travel fast. Today blizzard is an established part of the vocabulary of English. What else do we not know about its history? Suggestions are welcome.

Anatoly Liberman is the author of Word Origins…And How We Know Them. His column on word origins, The Oxford Etymologist, appears here each Wednesday. Send your etymology question to [email protected]; he’ll do his best to avoid responding with “origin unknown.”

Recent Comments

  1. Stephen

    While I wouldn’t claim much about the following 1867 quote with “blizzard,” perhaps it illustrates the sense of blizzard as a violent blow or loud shot blast used in the context of consequent shower and rain of blackbirds. Maybe, or maybe not.
    From the Newark [Ohio] Advocate, Friday, October 25, 1867; Issue 43; page 1, col E.
    [a silly letter:] Sum Shootin in the Stayt of Ohio White?s Corners, Oct14, 1867 A. H..

    It supposedly recounts an attempt to get rid of blackbirds by shooting at them.
    “I and Sam loded and fired as fast as we could, and at every broadside the black rascals fell in showers around us….The crow was keerful to keep as high abuv the rest as possible, but every time he’d lite we’d give him a blast. At length, toward evenin, we kind of hived him, and the last of the blackbirds in a big old tree….Now, Sam, sez I, now for big lodes and a simultuous blizzard!….How it did rain blackbirds….”

  2. Jack Gibbard

    “A similar case is blizzard. Alongside the predictable attempts to trace the word to its source (English? German? Irish?)…

    ‘Lexicographer attempts to trace word to its source’ shock. Shurely some mistake?

  3. David Blizzard

    It is old French. “Bliz ‘ard” Pronounced “Blis ‘aird”

    The reason it has such an obscure history is because French gypsies adopted the word and were very secretive people because of persecution in Europe.

  4. Mark Tuttle

    Here is a link to a recent news story in the Des Moines Register which cites a diary reference from Lephe Wells Coates, who was a school teacher and wife of the first postmaster of Spencer, Iowa. It was she who first uttered the word blizzard in reference to a snowstorm by relating it’s fury to a character, Mr. Blizzard in a story she had read. The children of Esther Ridley, from whom the town of Estherville, Ia was named, attended Coates’ school and carried the expression to Estherville, where it was later published.

  5. Gerald Baker

    How can I get in touch with David Blizzard, who posted on this site on May 13? A cousin of mine, who lives in France, told me that “blizzard” has the same meaning in French that it has in English.

    Re David’s comments, data from the 1980 US Census indicated that there were more “French Basques” living in Nebraska, that in any other place. That was wrong, but it was supposed that the figures were for some other ethnic group that had been confused with “Basques.”

    Perhaps the so-called “Basques” were given that nickname by their enemies, taken from the Greek word “baskanos,” which means “sorcerer” and that
    name might also have been applied to Gypsies, as in the song with the words, “Bonny, bonny Biscay.”

  6. […] L’etimologia di blizzard, parola che contiene elementi di fonosimbolismo, è […]

  7. […] French or German connections. The Oxford Etymologist has one of the most thorough examinations here.  Whatever the origin may be, the word certainly conjures up a cold, blustery […]

  8. […] phonesthemic bl- evokes the force of blast, blow or bluster, while its z‘s suggest speed. Anatoly Liberman is never one to underestimate such sound symbolism, so he puts up for such an imitative effect […]

  9. […] of the word in connection with snow originated in Iowa in the latter part of the 19th century. This essay by Anatoly Liberman at the Oxford Etymologist website says: “In 1870, in Iowa, a violent […]

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