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The Word

Snow joke

Battle of the snowstorm words

By Jan Freeman
February 14, 2010

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As they hunkered down for last weekend’s winter storm, the denizens of Washington (and their mid-Atlantic neighbors) realized that they needed more than milk, eggs, and canned tuna: They could use some more words for snow. This was no dusting or flurry or blanket: This was an awesome accumulation, one that called for a backup supply of hyperbole. It was snowmageddon! It was snowpocalypse!

There were other offerings, too, like snOMG and snowtastrophe, but they soon melted away, leaving just two “portmansnow words,” as linguist Arnold Zwicky dubbed this genre in 2008, facing off in an epic snowdown.

(Insert here, if you must, a reflexive sneer at our southern neighbors for their lack of snow-how. But in fairness, they’re using exaggerated language partly to poke fun at their own consternation - in a real disaster, our words tend to stay sober.)

So which word looks like a winner? Both terms can boast thousands of users - not just bloggers and Twitterers, but TV weather announcers, radio hosts, and the mainstreamest of mainstream newspapers. And both are flourishing, though snowmageddon - the one President Obama used at a gathering last weekend - may be ahead in total Web hits. (I haven’t tracked down and tallied every possible misspelling.)

And both words have been around for a few years, waiting for their big break; neither was invented for the snows of 2010, nor (despite some odd news reports) did Obama coin snowmageddon. We don’t know who made the first mashups, but each has several winters under its belt. The earliest snowmageddon in the Nexis newspaper database comes from the Sarnia (Ontario) Observer, on Dec. 23, 2005: “Some call it Snowmageddon. To them I say, humbug.” Snowpocalypse turns up the following year in the Buffalo News, as one name for a fall storm also known as arborgeddon for its toll on trees. And surely both words have been independently coined on other occasions, by people whose inspiration went unrecorded.

So how to choose, if you’re voting for one? Well, if you have any purist leanings, there are reasons to go with snowpocalypse. It’s based on apocalypse, the Greek word for “unveiling, revelation” and the alternative name for the Book of Revelation, that vision of the world’s end. Well into the 19th century, apocalypse could still be used as an everyday synonym for “disclosure,” but by the end of the century it had acquired a darker meaning: a catastrophe or disaster of the scale foretold in Revelation, one that does (in the Oxford English Dictionary’s words) “drastic, irreversible damage to human society or the environment, esp. on a global scale; a cataclysm.”

Armageddon, on the other hand, is just one battle, a single event in the long unrolling of the end times; its name is a site in Israel, says the OED, “the place of the last decisive battle at the Day of Judgement; hence [it is] used allusively for any ‘final’ conflict on a great scale.”

Current dictionaries still make that distinction: An Armageddon is a great conflict, slaughter, showdown, while an apocalypse can be any disaster or catastrophe, human-inflicted or natural. But actual usage seems to have outrun the lexicographers: In fact, Armageddon is often used to mean simply “apocalyptic-scale disaster.” News sites refer to “financial Armageddon,” “environmental Armageddon,” “Toyota Armageddon,” and the like, where there’s no implication of warring parties. A British soccer team owner predicts “Armageddon” if the club is relegated to a lesser league - meaning not an epic battle, but an epic fail.

Apocalypse comes up in the same contexts, especially when a writer wants to invoke the specifics of apocalyptic prophecy: “Seven Signs of the Desktop Web Apocalypse,” “the Four Horsemen of the Fiscal Apocalypse.” And so long as we need the adjective apocalyptic - there’s no equivalent Armageddonic - no doubt there will be some memory of the difference.

And if apocalypse and Armageddon, both associated with the same imagined future, both somewhat obscure, are beginning to blur in common usage, well, it’s not the end of the world. Despite my fondness for historical accuracy, I think snowmageddon may be the word that sticks. I’m probably not alone in finding snowpocalypse a bit of a tongue twister, with snowpack and snowcap tripping me up as I aim for that second syllable.

Both words, in any case, will soon need a break. If we want to preserve (even for humorous use) their awful import, we can’t be dragging them out at the merest hint of a storm. Come spring, they should both go into the freezer and stay there, awaiting a snowcasion that truly deserves a wallop of exclamatory excess.

Jan Freeman’s e-mail address is mailtheword@gmail.com; she blogs about language at Throw Grammar from the Train (throwgrammarfromthetrain.blogspot.com).

Correction: Because of a reporting error, this column misstated the location that scholars associate with the biblical battle of Armageddon. It is a site in northern Israel.