How one hard winter created a true Americanism.
When you’re from Buffalo, New York, you get to know snow. I was there when six feet fell in five days. I was there when one foot fell in one hour—rush hour, conveniently—paralyzing the city and creating instant icy hell. As a wee lad, I lived through the ferocious Blizzard of ’77. And while I hate snow, the word “blizzard” has always appealed to me. This vivid, visceral, and distinctly American word has a history as deep as a snow drift.
Originally, “blizzard” involved no snow, wind chill, or wintry conditions at all. The Oxford English Dictionary records it as an early 18th century word for a sharp, violent blow, first found in 1829. As is often the case, the origin is unclear; it probably has some relation to words like “blow,” “blast,” “blister,” and “bluster.” The Century Dictionary suggests it’s an alteration of “blazer” and provides a definition a little more in tune with the current sense: “A general discharge of guns; a rattling volley; a general; blazing away’.” The Century also notes that “blizzard” meant verbal as well as physical violence: “Figuratively, a volley; a sudden (oratorical) attack; an overwhelming retort.” That seems to be the meaning here: “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” (1834).
The current meaning started to emerge as early as 1859, but it took the nasty winter of 1880 and 1881 to establish “blizzard” as a common word for a storm. The severity of that season is discussed in Herbert Samuel Schell’s History of South Dakota: “The winter of 1880-1881 often has been called ‘the hard winter.’ A blizzard occurred as early as October, and although most of this early snow disappeared, heavy precipitation throughout the winter resulted in an accumulation of more than eleven feet of snow in many communities.” Yeesh! Even on the ice planet Hoth, eleven feet would get your attention.
An 1881 OED quotation on the emergence of the term is just like contemporary articles in which writers speculate on the staying power of terms like “staycation” or “man-cession”: “The hard weather has called into use a word which promises to become a national Americanism, namely ‘blizzard’. It designates a storm (of snow and wind) which men cannot resist away from shelter.” I have to say I enjoyed the OED’s definition of this sense: “A furious blast of frost-wind and blinding snow, in which man and beast frequently perish.” They don’t make definitions like that anymore.
Though “blizzard” began its lexical life in folksy fashion, it does have a technical meaning for meteorologists. The National Weather Service defines a blizzard as: “1. Sustained wind speeds of 35 mph or more, or frequent gusts to 35 mph or greater; 2. Considerable falling and/or blowing snow that reduces visibility frequently to 1/4 mile or less.” All that blowing and swirling wind is why you often hear about a “whiteout”—a word synonymous with “blizzard” since the 1940’s.
Words rarely stop evolving, and just as “blizzard” morphed from a sharp blow to a huge storm, it has continued to spread its snowy wings in metaphorical directions. With snow-like stuff, the metaphor is an easy fit, as here in 1947: “Confetti and torn paper blizzarded down on 2,000 American Navy men today as they marched through Sydney's streets.” A 2001 quote shows the metaphor is pretty stretchy: “The proliferation of emails, blizzarding in, brings a daily dilemma: to save or delete?” My favorite example comes from word-collecting poet/conceptual artist Kenneth Goldsmith, who recorded every word he spoke for a week in 1997, culminating in the book/installation piece Soliloquy. The epigram was “If every word spoken in New York City daily were somehow to materialize as a snowflake, each day there would be a blizzard.”
Horrible as a blizzard is, the word is a classic Americanism and a great example of how slang meanings can join standard English. As slang-master Michael Adams puts it, “To travel among ephemeral American English and the conversational grammar that accompanies it is simply to participate broadly and deeply in American culture, here and now.” With language as well as snow, sometimes it sticks and sometimes it doesn’t.