Language of Weather Is Changing; It's Our Favourite Topic of Conversation - If Only We Knew What It All Meant. Alexander Tulloch Explains

The Birmingham Post (England), February 18, 2005 | Go to article overview

Language of Weather Is Changing; It's Our Favourite Topic of Conversation - If Only We Knew What It All Meant. Alexander Tulloch Explains


Byline: Alexander Tulloch

There's a lot of weather about these days, isn't there?

At one time the weather was just the favourite topic of conversation for the inhabitants of these fair isles, but things have changed dramatically recently.

Ever since the tsunami that killed so many people in the Far East on Boxing Day, the weather, in one form or another has hardly been out of the news.

There were the dreadful floods in Carlisle, crippling blizzards in America and, most recently, we've heard of snowstorms in parts of Australia.

The strange thing about the word 'weather' is that it has changed its meaning quite a bit over the centuries.

We now apply it to any prevailing atmospheric conditions so we can talk about 'fine weather', 'settled weather' and, of course, the totally neutral use in a question: 'what's the weather going to be like tomorrow?'

But at one time the word always implied wind (in fact, the two words are linguistically related).

It's immediate antecedents are the Middle English and AngloSaxon weder which meant 'storm' or 'stormy weather' and this form of the word illustrates the linguistic origins of today's usage.

If we go back thousands of years to a time when the Indo-European languages were emerging from their formative stages we find a Sanskrit word vati meaning 'it blows' and the noun vatas 'wind'. The same words show up also in Modern Russian which has veter meaning simply 'wind'.

But the meteorological catastrophes that have befallen many parts of the world recently have not been to do with wind so much as water.

Floods have brought misery and destruction to vast swathes of the earth's surface and much of it very close to home.

Parts of the south of England are still recovering from the damage caused by floods which occurred three or four years ago, not to mention the dreadful events in the Cornish village of Boscastle last summer.

If we take a look at the word 'flood' we find that some of connecting roots linking it with other Indo-European languages are amazing.

One of the features of IndoEuropean languages which a student of etymology soon comes into contact with is the way in which the letters 'f' and 'p' frequently inter-change. For instance, where Northern European languages (such as English) has the letter 'f' languages such as Latin and Greek have a 'p'. So, our 'flood' has its counterpart in the Latin pluvia 'rain' and Greek word pleo 'to sail' or 'to swim'.

Another Latin verb with strong linguistic connections here is plorare. Preserving the association with streaming and flooding the verb basically means 'to weep' or 'to shed tears'. …

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