The Grammarphobia Blog

A blizzard of etymology

Q: I read the other day that the term “blizzard” was first used in Estherville, Iowa. I grew up in northern Iowa, not far from Estherville, and experienced my share of blizzards, but I’d never heard this. Is it true?

A: Several towns in the upper Midwest—Marshall, Minnesota; Sturgis and Vermillion, South Dakota; and Spencer and Estherville, Iowa—have been mentioned over the years as the source of the word “blizzard.”

As a Midwesterner who’s experienced stormy winters, you won’t be surprised to hear this. But did the word really originate in your neck of the woods?

Well, Estherville can indeed take credit for the first use of “blizzard” in reference to a severe snowstorm, but the term had been around for dozens of years in another sense.

Allen Walker Read, a Columbia University etymologist and lexicographer who died in 2002, wrote two papers in the journal American Speech about his efforts to track down the roots of the word “blizzard.”

In an article published in February 1928, Read says the earliest example of the usage he found was from the April 23, 1870, issue of the Northern Vindicator, a newspaper in Estherville serving Emmet County in northwest Iowa. (Someone should write an article about the names of small-town newspapers.)

That issue of the Vindicator debunked a “glowing account” in another newspaper, the Algona Upper Des Moines, that an Emmet County resident was endangered by a severe storm that had struck the Midwest on March 14-16, 1870:

“Campbell has had too much experience with northwestern ‘blizards’ to be caught in such a trap, in order to make sensational paragraphs for the Upper Des Moines.”

A week later, on April 30, 1870, the Vindicator spelled “blizzard” with a double “z.” Under the headline “Man Frozen at Okoboji, Iowa,” an article says:

“Dr. Ballard who has just returned from a visit to the unfortunate victim of the March ‘blizzard’ reports that his patient is rapidly improving.”

In both of these articles, the word is enclosed in quotation marks, suggesting that the usage was relatively new or considered colloquial.

A couple of weeks later, in its May 14, 1870, issue, the newspaper endorsed a proposal to rename a local baseball team as “the Northern Blizzards”:

“We confess to a certain liking for it, because it is at once startling, curious and peculiarly suggestive of the furious and all victorious tempests which are experienced in this northwestern clime.”

Read notes in American Speech that O. C. Bates, the editor of the Northern Vindicator in 1870, had a fondness for coining new words, including “weatherist,” “baseballism,” and “lollygagging.”

Did he coin “blizzard”? From the available evidence, it’s likely that he either coined it or popularized it.

Read cites several 19th-century reports that suggest the term may have been in use in Estherville before the Northern Vindicator published it.

One account, for example, says the term “blizzard” was coined by a local character in Estherville who was known as Lightning Ellis and “was given to drollery and quaint expressions.”

In a February 1930 article in American Speech, Read discounts reports that the term originated elsewhere in the Midwest or even in Texas. He cites the reports as examples of “what legendary material can … grow up around a word.”

As for the earlier incarnation of “blizzard,” the term showed up for the first time in the Virginia Literary Museum, a weekly journal published at the University of Virginia.

Robley Dunglison, a co-editor of the journal, included it in a list of Americanisms published in 1829: “Blizzard, a violent blow, perhaps from blitz (German: lightning).”

Davy Crockett, in his 1834 memoir, An Account of Colonel Crockett’s Tour to the North and Down East, used the term figuratively to mean a burst of speech:

“A gentleman at dinner asked me for a toast; and supposing he meant to have some fun at my expense, I concluded to go ahead, and give him and his likes a blizzard.”

Is the English word derived from the German blitz, as Dunglison and others have suggested?

The Oxford English Dictionary apparently thinks not. It doesn’t mention blitz and debunks speculation that the French blesser (to wound) may be the source.

The OED suggests instead that “blizzard” is “probably more or less onomatopoeic; suggestive words are blow, blast, blister, bluster.

Oxford defines the term in its original sense as “a sharp blow or knock; a shot. Also fig. U.S.

In his February 1930 article, Read notes the appearance of the word “blizz” in a weather sense in a May 31, 1770, entry in the diary of Col. Landon Carter: “At last a mighty blizz of rain.” He cites this usage as a “semantic shift in the very process of making.”

In the same article Read notes examples of the surname “Blizzard” (or “Blizard”) dating back to the mid-17th century. In 1658, one citation reports, “a Capt. Charles Blizard left this country for Antigua.”

However, Read seems skeptical about the relevance of the surname “to the semantics of the content word blizzard.”

Did the original sense of “blizzard” as a sharp blow or a shot lead to the use of the word to mean a severe storm?

The Merriam-Webster New Book of Word History notes the early evolution of the term and concludes:

“From a shotgun blast to a verbal blast to a wintry blast would seem to be a reasonable enough development, but we cannot demonstrate it.”

We can’t prove it either, but we think that’s a reasonable explanation.

And while we’re on the subject of extreme-weather terms coined in Iowa, here’s another one: “derecho.”

As we wrote on our blog last August, it was created by a University of Iowa professor in the late 19th century to describe a variety of severe thunderstorm.

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