New Hampshire: The Snow-Storm, Or Was It a ‘Blizzard’?

Snow covered hay rake in Merrimack NH. Copyright Tina Penrod-Bates. Used with permission.

Ralph Waldo Emerson perhaps said it best about a storm that includes snow:

“Announced by all the trumpets of the sky,

Arrives the snow, and, driving o’er the fields,
Seems nowhere to alight: the whited air
Hides hills and woods, the river and the heaven,
And veils the farm-house at the garden’s end.
The sled and traveler stopped, the courier’s feet
Delayed, all friends shut out, the housemates sit
Around the radiant fireplace, enclosed
In a tumultuous privacy of Storm.”
— from the poem “Snow-Storm.

Frozen red berries. Photograph copyright Tina Penrod-Bates. Used with permission.

—–Endearing Terms for Snow—–
Perhaps because we are so intimately fond of snow, New Hampshire residents have more than one term for this winter occurrence besides the common “snow storm.” The word we use all depends on the severity and time of year–snow blast, gale, snow squall, blow, tempest, ice storm, nor’easter, and blizzard.

It is this latter catchy word, blizzard, that i intend to inspect, for blizzard is not originally a New Hampshire, or even a New England, word.  It should be known, up front, that it was not until 1888 when a huge storm hit the east coast, that the word blizzard popped up as a local [New England] event. The word did not make it into the dictionary until 1898, almost 30 years after its first printed use.

—–Early Use of the Word: Blizzard—–
Though there are many opinions about its origin, it is generally accepted that the word “blizzard” was used first in the west and northwestern part of the United States.  At first it seemed to have nothing at all to do with the weather.  What IS known is that the word first appears in newspaper print about 1870.   Show just below are three examples of a somewhat enigmatic use of the term:

On 5 Jan 1870 The Selingsgrove Times Tribune of Selingsgrove PA announced: “Christmas week came and went the same as any other week. Christmas Day was unusually quiet. Of course we had a few extra fights and the usual number of “blizzards” were taken.” Was the term used meaning to make a bet, or something else?  I have to admit I have no clue what is meant here, and I welcome comments from my readers to explain it within this context.

On 1 January 1875, The Athens Post (Athens, Alabma) on page 3 stated: “Sunday and Monday the weather was warm and summer-like,but Wednesday the wind veered to the North and it is now as cold as blizzards.”

On 7 January, 1875 the Nebraska Advertiser (Brownville, Nebraska) offered: “This is a right good place after all, if it was not for that son-of-a-gun of a Texan steer, and that old blizzard of an Aunt Betty, that ain’t got as much sense as a last year’s bird’s nest…”

Snowfall near White Lake, Windsor NH. Photograph copyright Tina Penrod-Bates. Used with permission.

—–Who coined the word?——
The Cincinnati Daily Gazette newspaper, Cincinnati Ohio, 10 March 1881 on p. 8 published a story, reportedly the final word on the origin of the term ‘blizzard.’  The article stated: “‘Lightning Ellis,’ whom you will remember as one of the Northwestern weather prophets, originated the word “blizzard,” as it was subsequently applied to the awful storms which devastated Minnesota and Northwestern Iowa in the ’60s [1860s]. The word was first given to the public by O.C. Bates, Esq., through the columns of the Northern Vindicator. Perhaps you remember his saying, in the old Vindicator office in the ‘barracks,’ when he used the word blizzard for the first time–as he had heard ‘Lightning Ellis’ use it–to head an article on a great storm, that the term will immortalize ‘Lightning Ellis.'” [Editor’s Note: my research reveals that Lightning Ellis, so-called, was probably Robert Ellis, Linn County’s one-time oldest living settler. He was born in Westmoreland Co. PA 20 January 1817, emigrated to Ohio in 1837, later to Michigan, and started on foot to Iowa Territory in the winter of 1838. He remained a few weeks in Cedar county and began looking for a claim, finding it at Cedar Rapids, Iowa near what is now Ellis Park.]

Whomever coined it, the word blizzard generally defines a snowstorm of great severity with strong winds that lasts more than 3 hours, and is accompanied by a great drop in air temperature.  The storm often covers a large area of land. As ferocious and disastrous as a blizzard seems to be, it was not above being made fun of as shown below.

—–Making Light of a Bad Situation—–
The Kalamazoo Gazette newspaper, Kalamazoo Michigan of 7 Jan 1881 on p 3, states: “A ‘blizzard’ is described by the Cheyenne Leaders as follows: “There is no clearly stated definition of the word “blizzard,” as it is not found in the dictionaries. It is a purely Western invention. Blizzard came out since the dictionaries were built. But then a blizzard is an unspeakably mean thing. Oh! it is so mean. No one ever thinks of a blizzard without apologizing mentally for touching upon so base a subject. What the cayote (sic coyote) is to the hunter, the freighter, the cowboy and the miner, the blizzard is to the average citizen. The blizzard ranks about as high in meteorology as does the skunk in zoology. And then a blizzard is the only thing known to history or science that will blow thirteen ways at once. It describes a course precisely like a Scotch plaid. You turn from a direct line–to the lee way–of the fierce wind in order to catch a good square breath, and the blizzard is there too. It catches you on the point of exhalation, just as your lungs are a nameless vacuum. Your mouth is open, of course, and the blizzard suddenly fills you so full of wind that nothing but a heavy conscience prevents you from soaring aloft at once like a balloon. You feel miserable and tighter’n a bass drum. You want to swear, but you haven’t time. Your only relief is to strain the blizzard through your fingers.”

Comments and criticisms are welcome!

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