Some of the thousands of words used to describe weather come from folklore, history, or superstition

Geoff CarpentierThe media has created some of its own climate words and sometimes uses superlatives somewhat carelessly – worst storm ever, highest rainfall ever, greatest flood ever. And what the heck is a polar vortex?

A Washington Post readers’ poll coined the word snowmageddon but it has no meaning in meteorological terms. Yet it’s used by the media as if it had meaning.

With all the news about changing weather, I thought I would share some unusual weather terms that have been used for eons.

Let’s start with an easy one: mares’ tails are simply cirrus clouds, which mariners and farmers believed pointed towards fine weather. These are the wispy, filamentous clouds you see on perfect sunny days, miles high in the sky, that look like horses’ tails. These are the clouds we often stared at as youth, imaging we could see a unicorn or a pony.

weather clouds
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Asperitas clouds are very dark and gloomy, and appear threatening. But despite their ominous appearance, they usually dissipate without causing a storm.

Mammatus clouds are uniquely shaped. They often accompany severe thunder storms, manifesting themselves as pouches hanging below thick, continuous cloud banks. The size of the pouch varies with the amount of moisture in the air – the higher the humidity, the bigger the pouch. Some can even appear to be coloured differently than the parent cloud, due to light reflection and juxtaposition.

Sometimes words are developed to describe how the clouds move, rather than what they look like. Derived from a Scottish word, cairies are simply swift-moving clouds.

Moke is an old northern English word for the mesh in a fishing net. Over time, this morphed into the word mokey, meaning dull, dark or hazy. It was subsequently applied to describe weather conditions of the same ilk.

Foxy weather is sunny, clear and bright, but very cold.

Armoganous conditions represent perfect travelling weather.

For those who like to air dry their laundry, drouth (an old British word) represents clear, dry conditions, perfect for hanging your clothes outdoors. Eventually, this became the familiar word drought.

Haboobs are a phenomenon associated with rapidly forming and intense dust storms that cause danger due to the small particulate matter they carry, and the speed at which they form.

Words to describe the effects of the sun and moon are equally odd.

Heat haze can be called a halta-haze, which means to run frantically around. This derivation is a bit hard to understand and may simply refer to the swirling effects we think we see as the air seems to shimmer under these conditions.

Another term for summer’s heat haze has been known as a Lawrence (after the Roman martyr Saint Lawrence), but no one is sure why.

A monkey’s wedding is simply a sun shower, but its origins are obscure and may have derived from Portuguese roots.

A sunwade is an old Yorkshire word for a haze of cloud around the sun, while a moonbrooch refers to a hazy halo ringing the moon. Moonbrooch originates from an old Scottish word that foretold of impending bad weather.

Many words are associated with weather predictions.

Hen-scartins, from the Old English, refer to thin streaky clouds that suggest rain is imminent.

Sugar weather is a 19th-century Canadian word for a period of warm days and cold nights. These conditions are perfect to start the sap flowing in maple trees.

A swullocking sky, from the Old English, is one that carries high humidity and foretells that a thunderstorm is on its way.

Ever wonder what you call it when the thunder breaks the silence during a snow storm? According to an article in Newsweek, it’s thundersnow, of course!

There are thousands of words people use to describe weather patterns and events. Some arise from folklore, others from historical inferences and still others from superstitious events and interpretations. Whatever the reason, they’re fascinating and fun to learn.

Wait, is that a brinicle (an underwater icicle that forms below sea ice)?

Join me next time for more nifty words.

Geoff Carpentier is a published author, expedition guide and environmental consultant.

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