Sleet.

When I came back in from getting the mail, I told my wife that it was snowing again, but this time in little pellets rather than flakes. She said “Oh, sleet?” I said, confusedly, “I thought sleet was wet?” Then I looked it up in AHD:

1. Precipitation consisting of small ice pellets formed by the freezing of raindrops or of melted snowflakes.
2. A mixture of rain and snow or hail.
3. A thin icy coating that forms when rain or sleet freezes, as on trees or streets.

It seemed that my default definition was 2, whereas hers was 1; we agreed that neither of us had heard anyone use 3. Wikipedia has only 1 and 2:

• Rain and snow mixed, snow that partially melts as it falls (UK, Ireland, and most Commonwealth countries)
• Ice pellets, one of three forms of precipitation in “wintry mixes”, the other two being snow and freezing rain (United States, Canada)

But they divide them geographically in a way that doesn’t work for me; as I say, to me it means the wet mixture, and I certainly didn’t pick it up from UK usage. So, naturally, I bring the issue to the Varied Reader: what does it mean to you?

Comments

  1. Ice pellets are hail.

    Sleet is a wet mix, if it freezes on the surface it falls on. Mixed rain and snow is just mixed rain and snow if it doesn’t ultimately freeze.

    Sleet is the precipitation of an ice storm, where ice forms on surfaces. That ice is just ice, not sleet.

  2. #2 for me (California).

  3. I learned my rain and snow terminology in the UK, so I agree with the first wiki definition of sleet. Sleet doesn’t necessarily freeze on contact. In the UK, typically, it comes down as a nasty mix of ice and snow and water and melts on the ground.

    I don’t know that ice pellets are the same as hail — the latter is bigger, globs of rain/ice that have congealed on the way down. But then I don’t think I have a word specifically for little ice pellets. There is a region of lexicological uncertainty in the middle of the sleet-hail spectrum.

    From my mother I learned many interesting terms for different kinds of rain, but that can wait for another time.

  4. J.W. Brewer says:

    I think of sleet as basically the same as hail but with the individual ice pellets being notably smaller – i.e. more like tiny grains of sand rather than gravel or frozen peas. That sort of sleet may well be most likely to manifest as part of a “wintry mix” or right at a point of transition from snow to very cold rain or vice versa, leading to a nexus between sense 1 and sense 2.

  5. Number three doesn’t even make sense (sleet is an icy coating that forms when sleet freezes?) and anyway that would probably be a shiny hoar frost.

    I think of sleet as 2, and I grew up in England. But I’d call 1 sleet as well, probably. I mean what else are you going to call it? They have very little experience with freezing temperatures in England, a bit more in Scotland but even so the whole place is very nouveau-snow. They just don’t have a vocabulary. On the other hand:

    When icicles hang by the wall
    And Dick the shepherd blows his nail
    And Tom bears logs into the hall
    And milk comes frozen home in pail
    When blood is nipped and ways be foul
    Then nightly sings the staring owl
    Towit towoo – A merry note
    While greasy Joan doth keel the pot.

    #norway_365wordsforsnow

  6. John Cowan says:

    To my understanding, the thing about hail is that it is carried in an updraft and gets a new layer of ice on the outside, falls again, partly melts, rises again, freezes again, and so on, building up layers as it goes. Eventually it is too heavy and hits the ground. The largest hailstone ever recorded in the U.S. was 8 inches across and weighed almost two pounds.

  7. Definition 1, Virginia, Southeastern US.

  8. It was always Definition 2 when I was growing up in Maryland (80’s and 90’s).

  9. Brit here: sleet is wet for me, i.e. sense #2.

    Sense #1 I’d call ‘small hail’, I don’t have a specific word.

    Sense #3 is in a continuum with rime and hoar frost?

  10. John Cowan says:

    For me, sleet is #1.

  11. David Marjanović says:

    Sense #3 is in a continuum with rime and hoar frost?

    Sense 3 seems to be rain freezing out on cold substrates other than the ground. Rime/hoarfrost (what’s the difference?) are the solid version of dew, air moisture directly resublimating on cold substrates, right?

  12. Joh2hn Roth says:

    #2. Grew up in the midwest, For me, if it’s dry solid pellets of any size, it’s hail.

  13. I’d say Definition 2, but coming from California, where I never experienced any such thing, what would I know? —

    And, coming from California, I had no ready description of what I experienced last night in New York City when my wife asked what it was like outside, except to say “tiny stinging particles of ice.” It wasn’t hail.

    The OED in 1912 defined sleet as “Snow which has been partially thawed by falling through an atmosphere of a temperature a little above freezing-point, usually accompanied by rain or snow.” It sounds like it’s going for definition 1, saying it’s usually part of a mixture that by some might be called sleet per definition 2. This seems to comport with a quote it gives from Chaucer (Legend of Good Women): “Doun cam the reyn with hayl & slet so faste.” However, the meaning doesn’t seem to be quite so fixed, because it also quotes J. Swan, Speculum Mundi, 1635: “We have sometimes sleet, which is snow and rain together.” — Clearly Definition 2.

    The Century Dictionary says “Hail or snow mingled with rain, usually in fine particles, and frequently driven by the wind. Sleet may sometimes consist of fine rain freezing as it falls through a layer of very cold air, but is more frequently formed in the so-called hail-stage.”

    Both the OED and the Century give a quote from Milton (P.R. iii 324) that captures very nicely what I felt last night: “He saw..How quick they wheel’d, and..shot Sharp sleet of arrowie shower[s] against the face Of thir pursuers.”

  14. For me, sleet is sense #2. I would identify sense #1 as frozen rain or sago. Skiing in Australia, you get to know both all too well — along with a host of other unpleasant snow types.

  15. Where I come from in Queensland we don’t get 2; it’s not cold enough. But the tiny ice pellets (which we did get) I would call hail.

    I learnt the term sleet, but not from everyday life, and it was always 2.

  16. I didn’t know about 1 until I moved to Chicago for grad school, whereupon I picked up ‘ice pellets’ from the weather forecast. I always thought ‘sleet’ was 2 (Moscow until age 5, NJ until age 8, CA thereafter) but my understanding might have been colored by Russian ‘слякоть’. From my reading about weather phenomena, 1 doesn’t really occur outside of eastern North America.

    The difference with hail is not even so much the size as that hail is round whereas ice pellets are sharp.

  17. George Grady says:

    I grew up in Detroit, Michigan in the 70s and 80s, and for me, sleet was always #2. I’d have called #1 ice pellets or hail, depending on size (hail is larger).

  18. In Russian, sense 3 is гололед [golol’od] literally naked ice (masculine). There is also feminine гололедица [gololeditsa] which is formed after snow thaws and then freezes again. The source of perennial confusion.

  19. Tom Goodwillie says:

    For me hail can be even very tiny balls of ice falling. Sleet has to have liquid water with it, or on it.

  20. For me (grew up in Virginia), sleet is small ice pellets, the size of raindrops. The National Weather Service seems to agree. Hail is larger, and I think formed by a different process,

  21. Grew up and live in NYC, only sense 1 is sleet to me, though I could see sense 3 – sleet that’s stuck to the ground is still sleet in the way that rain puddles can be called rain. I wouldn’t say it, but I wouldn’t bat an eye if somebody else did.

  22. hail

    for some reason, I tend to think of hail as a summer thing.

    everything icy falling from the skies in winter has to be some type of snow

  23. Lars (the original one) says:

    Danish:

    1 is hagl if hard enough frozen that you can see the pellets lying on the ground for at least a short while. For the kind that just stings your face we’d probably go compositional and call it frossen regn. (Or frosset regn if you are young enough).

    2 is where we are experts. Slud. Up to your ankles. All the time. (Actually not this winter, but archetypically).

    3 is isslag.

  24. In Cork, the mild moist southwest of Ireland, freezing precipitation is so rare that we have sold off most of the concomitant terminology to the Inuit.

    #1 is “hail”. I don’t distinguish based on the size of the hailstones; in any case hailstones “the size of raindrops” are at the upper size limit of my experience. (Unless American raindrops are much smaller than Irish ones?)

    #2 is “sleet”, This post is the first I’ve heard of senses #1 and #3 being called “sleet”. Though my platonic ideal sleet is composed not of mixed raindrops and snowflakes but rather of identical particles each of which is a half-melted hailstone or a half-melted snowflake. (For the subtypes I might invent terms “hail-sleet” and “snow-sleet”, composed respectively of “sleet-stones” and “sleet-flakes”.)

    #3 on streets is “black ice”. I don’t recollect having seen it on trees; I would just call it “ice”.

  25. To the logical French mind, “sleet” is neige fondue, melted snow: ‘hail’ is pluie gelee, frozen rain. I trust that settles matters.

  26. Wikipedia has this entry on “ice pellets”:

    Ice pellets are a form of precipitation consisting of small, translucent balls of ice. Ice pellets are smaller than hailstones which form in thunderstorms rather than in winter, and are different from graupel (“soft hail”) which is made of frosty white rime, and from a mixture of rain and snow which is a slushy liquid or semisolid.

    And just confirming what Wikipedia says about supposed US usage:

    Ice pellets are known as sleet in the United States, the official term used by the U.S. National Weather Service. However, the term sleet refers to a mixture of rain and snow in most Commonwealth countries, including Canada. Because of this, Environment Canada never uses the term sleet, and uses the terms “ice pellets” or “wet snow” instead.

    Words in other languages (according to Wikipedia) are:

    French: Neige mouillée. Ice pellets: Grésil
    German: Schneeregen, das heißt ein Gemisch aus Schnee und Regen. Ice pellets: Eiskorn
    Spanish: Aguanieve. Ice pellets: Perdigones de hielo
    Japanese: 霙 mizore. Ice pellets: 凍雨 tōu (obviously a specialised rather than everyday term)
    Chinese: 雨夾雪 yǔ-jiā-xuě ‘rain mingled-with snow’. Ice pellets: 冰珠 bīngzhū ‘ice balls’
    Korean: 진눈깨비 jinnunkkaebi (I can’t make head or tail of the composition of the term). Ice pellets: —
    Finnish: Räntä. Ice pellets: —
    Swedish: Snöblandat regn. Ice pellets: —
    Scots Gaelic: Flin. Ice pellets: —
    Welsh: Eirlaw. Ice pellets: —
    Irish: Flichshneachta. Ice pellets: —

    As we know, Wikipedia is always right.

  27. FiWi
    Räntä
    Räntä on sadetta, joka koostuu vesipisaroista ja osittain sulaneista lumihiutaleista. Sitä esiintyy, kun lämpötila on lähellä nollaa. Sade syntyy lumihiutaleina, mutta putoaa lämpimämpään ilmakerrokseen, missä pienet hiutaleet ehtivät sulaa kokonaan ja isotkin osittain.

    R. is precipitation that consists of drops of water and partially melted snowflakes. It appears when temperature is near zero. The precipiation starts out as snowlakes, but falls to a wamer layer of atmosphere, where the smaller flakes stay long enough to melt completely and the larger ones parially.

    The Russian dialectal word ryanda is a loan from Karelian or Veps.

  28. Nobody mentioned graupel?

  29. I use the second definition (a mixture of rain and snow or hail), and I was born in DE in the very late 60s.

    However, my husband who was born in NH in the very early 80s uses the first definition.

  30. John Cowan says:

    Rime/hoarfrost (what’s the difference?)

    Both begin life as cold water vapor. If it condenses, supercools, and then freezes, it’s rime; if it’s a product of deposition (the opposite of sublimation, the transition from the gas state directly to the solid state) it’s hoarfrost. Graupel is basically snow crystals covered with rime.

  31. English is not my mother tongue, but I recognize sleet in the definition 1. Sometimes though it seems to me to mean only snow. Interesting to read about the wet snow thing.

    In Swedish:
    1. Hagel
    2. Snöblandat regn (when falling). If it’s on the ground, it’s modd or snömodd. If it’s more wet than snowy, it’s snöslask.
    3. Frost. If it’s on the road when you’re driving, it’s svarthalka or blixthalka. Although some people wrongly call that kind of ice “svartis” from the English “black ice”.

  32. To me (WV, born 1948) sleet is #1. Hail falls in the summer and is larger. #2 is “a mess.” #3 is black ice or what the media call “glare ice,” which I think ought to be “glair ice.”

  33. Räntä
    Räntä on sadetta, joka koostuu vesipisaroista ja osittain sulaneista lumihiutaleista.

    Beach
    Silk is a rain that consists of water drops and partially melted snowflakes.

    I don’t own a Finnish dictionary but if I google räntä I get beach, silk, rain & sleet, and for räntälä I get silence. Is Finland saving money on nouns or am I doing something wrong? The reason I was interested is I remember from a Swedish krim a fictional multinational company called Räntäla Stövel that supposedly made wellingtons (boots = støvler).

  34. It seems someone is tightfisted with umlauts/diereses.

    ranta (from PrGerm. “stranða” or PrB-Sl. “kranta”): beach, shore, bank

    No idea, though, where “silk” comes from.
    ______________

    -la (front vowel harmony variant -lä)
    Forms nouns that signify a place, such as an abode, a house, a land of, etc. Often denotes a farm in many place names.

    https://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/-la#Finnish

  35. Sleet is the mix, although I don’t think I’ve ever said it. The pellets I’d probably have called hail. I’m from around chicago.

  36. I guess I’m in a ‘mostly frozen and wet, but not snow, not hail either’ group. Also, slippery– that layer of ice in #3 is the result of sleet.

  37. Sleet has to have liquid water with it, or on it.

    That’s how it is for me as well.

    #2 is “a mess.”

    It’s definitely a mess!

    Fascinating that there is so much confusion about this apparently simple word; the two senses are very distinct (I don’t mind being out in 1, but hate 2) and you’d think the language would separate them better.

  38. J.W. Brewer says:

    “And I’ve been kicked by the wind, robbed by the sleet /
    Had my head stove in but I’m still on my feet”

    I suppose these lines work about as well regardless of whether sense 1 or sense 2 is imputed to them by the listener?

  39. https://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/Category:Finnish_language

    Thanks, Juha. This is a great help.

  40. “2 is where we are experts. Slud. Up to your ankles. All the time. (Actually not this winter, but archetypically).”

    Oh, Lars; this is so getting borrowed into English! It goes much deeper into disgust and frustration than mere “slush.”

  41. Yes, “slud” is a superb word that needs wider exposure.

  42. Interesting! I thought ‘sleet’ was #3. We in the Netherlands call it “ijzel”. It is supercooled rain, which freezes as soon as it touches a surface.
    #1 is “hagel”, or “hail” in English.
    #2 doesn’t have a single word in Dutch. It is very common in wintertime, but it is called “natte sneeuw” (“wet snow” in English).

  43. Category: Finnish entries that don’t exist

    Depending on how they define exist (see English).

  44. Sneeuw is also a good word. Eew! Sneeuw!

  45. It is supercooled rain, which freezes as soon as it touches a surface.

    American media call this by the ambiguous term “freezing rain” while it’s falling.

  46. I think American weather forecasters generally refer to #2 as wintry mix, and I’ve heard real people use it in conversation.

  47. Yes, “slud” is a superb word that needs wider exposure.

    But this meaning has to be distinguished from the traditional one, as in “he slud into third base.”

    The meanings could overlap if you were playing baseball during a winter storm.

  48. He slud right into the slud.

  49. January First-of-May says:

    It is supercooled rain, which freezes as soon as it touches a surface.

    This is known as ледяной дождь in Russian.

  50. Stephen Carlson says:

    Northern Virginia here. 1. Sleet; 2. Snow (with rain); 3. Freezing rain. I’m sure my terminology was learned from earth science class and reinforced by the local weathercaster, Bob Ryan, who had a metereology degree. In other words, it’s probably technical rather than local.

  51. David Marjanović says:

    If it condenses, supercools, and then freezes, it’s rime

    Actual frozen dew? Somehow I didn’t know that even occurred.

    For me, the only difference between Graupel and Hagel is grain size. I once read about “ice needles”, Eisnadeln, that have not combined into snowflakes sometimes falling high in the mountains. A mixture of snow and rain is boring old Schneeregen. Freezing rain, even more boringly, is gefrierender Regen

    Slush is Matsch or Schneematsch. Black ice is Glatteis, except that here in Berlin it’s abstract Glätte, “smoothness”.

  52. Robert Hertel says:

    Grew up in the southeast, mostly East Tennessee. 1. Sleet 2. No special term. 3. Freezing Rain while falling, Ice on the ground and streets and, sometimes, the ice on trees and lines referred to as Rime. Agree with John Cowan’s comment on hail formation; thus, usually a summer phenomenon associated with thunderstorms; sleet, OTOH, is a wintertime issue.

  53. Sorry January, I had trouble figuring out the Russian. Because there was no Wikipedia article.

  54. In my family, growing up, we did not know what “sleet” meant. However, there was the occasional mixture of ice and snow that fell when the air temperature was very close to 273 K. So, on a car trip one day, we decided that the sol form of precipitation must be “sleet.” That is essentially definition #2.

  55. January First-of-May says:

    Because there was no Wikipedia article.

    There actually is one, but it gives two definitions of the term, and the English Wikipedia article it links to corresponds to the first (“ice pellets”, ironically enough), even as both pictures are showing the second.

  56. @ January

    That just completes the confusion!

  57. I live in Brooklin, Maine—a good 3-4 hrs north of Portland—and before that we lived in NJ, about 20 miles north of Washington’s Crossing; and though the weather differs greatly, I agree with both of you about definition 3 and agree with you over your wife about 1 and 2. 1 is hail in my idiolect; 2, the default for sleet.

  58. AJP CROWN, Jeremy, friend:

    Did you get the present I sent you yet? I’m having trouble with my Zoho account, but you can definitely reach me at jim_ap_salant@protonmail.com. I’d love to catch up.

  59. I don’t know what sleet is, but I use sleet for (1), because to me it’s the one most in need of a name.

    I call (2) slush and (3) ice.

  60. To me, slush is lying around on the ground, not falling through the air.

  61. I mostly also call it slush when it’s on the ground, but that’s the only word I can come up with for the falling stuff.

  62. Slud. Up to your ankles. All the time. (Actually not this winter, but archetypically).”

    Oh, Lars; this is so getting borrowed into English!

    Already:

    https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/slud

  63. I believe mizore is a close second:

    As if it were not misery enough, it came on to mizore.

  64. Oh, Lars; this is so getting borrowed into English!

    Another one from the Danelaw, methinks.

  65. Jamessal, glad to hear. I have emailed you at this new (to me) address. We need to catch up.

  66. Trond Engen says:

    In my Norwegian

    1. Probably within the realm of hagl
    2. sludd
    3. Simply is, I think.

    The mix of snow and meltwater on the ground is sørpe or snøsørpe. Frozen sørpe is hålke.

    As for the logical French, I’m off to Paris for a field study. If the conditions are right I’ll report back.

  67. #1 is sleet for me.
    #2 is icy rain.

    And, as to hail, it’s similar to sleet in composition, but sleet is winter weather, while hail is for the other seasons (generally). They’re formed differently, even though the end result is very similar. USA Today has my back on this: https://www.usatoday.com/story/weather/2017/03/14/sleet-freezing-rain-hail-whats-the-difference/99160820/

  68. “American media call this by the ambiguous term “freezing rain” while it’s falling.”

    Rodger,

    There is nothing at all ambiguous about that term – it’s rain that freezes you to the bone.

    I recall hearing it in the Army, in Germany, to refer to conditions around Idar-Oberstein where it occurs once or twice a year. There is a related term, “freezing fog”, otherwise know as an “ice storm.”

    Dan, where are you from; what variety of Englsih?

  69. Jim: I’m from the US. My dialect leans toward Texan, although my formative years were in Pacific NW.

  70. For me (raised in Michigan) it can be either #1 or #2. I more often hear it defined as #2, but #1 is what I tend to picture first when I hear the word.

    Like some commenters above, for me #3 is “freezing rain”.

  71. In the parallel universe of the Old Farmer’s Almanac, there’s also pogonip ‘ice fog’ (from Shoshone). I’ve never been anywhere cold enough to experience it. It’s also Nevada’s “unofficial State word”.

  72. Kate Bunting says:

    The original post reminded me of an old joke from the Soviet era about a Russian and his wife disputing whether it was snowing or raining. The punch line was ‘Rudolf the Red knows rain, dear’.

    (I’m from the UK and go for definition 2.)

  73. Allan from Iowa says:

    Only three components to wintry mix? Here in Iowa we once got a forecast for “freezing rain, sleet, hail, and snow.” (Everything all at once except oobleck.) Note that sleet is here contrasted with hail and also contrasted with the mix of freezing rain and snow. Thus it is sense #1.

  74. “the term sleet refers to a mixture of rain and snow in most Commonwealth countries”
    but not all – South Africa English, sleet is #1. That may be because of a lack of snow in S. Africa.

    Sleet is quite different from hail, which is usually in a thunderstorm and hurts when it hits you. Sleet just patters on the raingear, it’s rather soothing..

    I’ve never seen snow mixed with hail so would call that a wild exception. Recently in Colorado we have started having thundersnow in winters, as part of the changing climate, but even then hail doesn’t seem to happen.
    Snow mixed with sleet is not uncommon, though: as is rain shading through sleet to snow.

  75. IMFU (In My Finnish Usage) räntä only applies to the stuff when it’s raining down as such; once accumulated on the ground (including also from snow that got rained on) it becomes loska. I’d actually draw a similar distinction in English too — räntä = sleet but loska = slush (no idea which way this has been calqued and by whom).

    I’ve run into English sense #3 as well, but not #1.

  76. David Marjanović says:

    loska and slush look related, at least if you slosh around in the slush.

  77. I thought at first that the issue here was a disconnect between technical and popular usage. The US National Weather Service makes this distinction:

    “Both freezing rain and sleet occur by the same general process: liquid raindrops in a layer of warm air well above the surface fall into a layer of freezing air hugging the ground. The difference between these two wintry precipitation types depends on the thickness of the layer of freezing air.

    Freezing rain occurs when the layer of freezing air is so thin that the raindrops do not have enough time to freeze before reaching the ground. Instead, the water freezes on contact with the surface, creating a coating of ice on whatever the raindrops contact.

    Sleet is simply frozen raindrops and occurs when the layer of freezing air along the surface is thicker. This causes the raindrops to freeze before reaching the ground.”

    So going by the NWS, Ms. Hat and others and others who define icy pellets as sleet were the ones listening in class.

    But then let’s check the UK’s Met Office, which by its name alone I would have thought would be in charge of producing tables of Britain’s largest cities by population, rather than predicting the weather. It says:

    “Sleet has no internationally agreed definition but is reported in meteorological observations as a combination or mix of rain and snow.

    Essentially, it is frozen precipitation that partially melts as it falls and has begun the melting process before it reaches the ground, so you will see both raindrops and snowflakes falling from the sky.”

    Both the US National Weather Service and the Met Office have a nice little diagram on their relevant web pages showing how a layer of warm air affects things. The Met Office includes a cute little snowman.

    So let’s go to the real experts on winter — Environment Canada (now called Environment and Climate Change Canada — clumsy, but good for them!) They say:

    “Ice pellets: This is the term Canadians use to describe frozen rain drops which are five millimetres or less in diameter and bounce when they hit a hard surface. Americans call this sleet.” — Well not all Americans, I’ll have you know.

    It’s not as if common ground is impossible: everyone agrees what freezing rain is.

  78. A nice roundup, thanks!

  79. Met = Meteorological
    It’s been called the Meteorological Office since the dawn of time and everyone knows it. In fact it could be one of the questions they ask to find out if you’re a spy, like “What colours is Leeds away-match strip?” or “Name the Queen’s oldest corgi”.

  80. loska

    Looks suspiciously like (snö)slask upthread.

  81. Amusingly it apparently has a dialectal variant floska which probably points to onomatopoetic origin.

  82. David Marjanović says:

    Curses! Foiled again!

  83. Trond Engen says:

    Oh, right. I’m back from the field research. A complete failure. No snow, ice, water or mix thereof either in the air or on the ground.

  84. Penitentes, or nieves penitentes (Spanish for “penitent-shaped snows”), are snow formations found at high altitudes. They take the form of elongated, thin blades of hardened snow or ice, closely spaced and pointing towards the general direction of the sun.

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Penitente_(snow_formation)

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