I don’t know if I’d ever thought about the history of the word blizzard, but it turns out to be confused and confusing; Merriam-Webster:

The earliest recorded appearance of the word blizzard meaning “a severe snowstorm” was in the April 23, 1870 issue of a newspaper published in Estherville, Iowa. Blizzard shows up again during the following years in several newspapers in Iowa and neighboring states, and by 1888, when a snowstorm paralyzed the Eastern seaboard, the word was well-known nationally. However, in other senses, the word blizzard existed earlier. Davy Crockett, for instance, used it twice in the 1830s, once to mean a rifle blast and once to mean for a blast of words. All of these uses seem related, but the ultimate origin of the word is still unclear.


Originally a mid-19th century regional American term (Western United States), perhaps from earlier American regional blizzard, a stunning blow (suggested by BLAST, BLOW, BLUSTER, etc.), or perhaps a compound of blizz- (either of imitative origin, or from 18-century American regional (Virginia) blizz, powerful rainstorm (of unknown origin)) + -ARD.

The OED entry, alas, is still in its 1887 form, so it can be safely ignored. At any rate, it’s a very satisfying word, much better than snowstorm.


  1. perhaps a compound of blizz- (either of imitative origin, …

    OED says it probably is “more or less onomatopœic,”… [etymonline]

    imitative? onomatopoeic? Imitative of/soundalike what, exactly?

    “rifle blast” … “hail of bullets” kinda maybe gives a meteorological parallel.

    ‘blast’ “Proto-Germanic *bles- from PIE root *bhle- “to blow.”” [although now I doubt every PIE claim]

    ‘Blitz’? Didn’t enter English ’til 1939 says etymonline, but from “Proto-Germanic *blikkatjan from PIE root *bhel- (1) “to shine, flash, burn.””. For ‘blizzard’ mumbles about ‘blaze(r)’ also ultimately from *bhel-.

    Would there be German speakers in “mid-19th century regional America … (Western United States)”?

    A mis-hearing: Donner ünd blizzard? Oregon river ” Named by soldiers of German origin, “. Grr! When? What were German soldiers doing in Oregon? Especially way up in the mountains.

  2. I remember Mencken pointing to this discussion in American Speech (from around 1930).

  3. David Marjanović says

    from PIE root *bhle-

    That’s not a possible shape for the root of a content word.

    from PIE root *bhel-

    That works.

    A mis-hearing: Donner ünd blizzard?

    Can [ts] really be misheard as [z]?

    No ü in und, BTW.

  4. Dmitry Pruss says

    The earliest Ngram mentions of Blizzard are as of a surname. In the UK records, there are many Blizzards at least as early as the 1600s. So it the word stood for something in England…

  5. That’s not a possible shape …

    Another nail in the coffin for PIE at etymonline, then.

    No ü in und,

    The Bureau of Land Management begs to differ.

    That page at least gets us a date (1864), so later than attestations we’ve already seen. “an Army commander” doesn’t say they were German — but would the phrase be in common parlance at that date in U.S.A.? (I’m quite a bit surprised there were major rivers still unnamed at that date. In NZ rivers came ready with a Māori name. Only the major rivers — and not all of them — got a Brit name.)

    -ard ” from Old French -ard, -art, from German -hard, -hart “hardy,” forming the second element in many personal names, often used as an intensifier, but in Middle High German and Dutch used as a pejorative element in common nouns, and thus passing into Middle English in bastard, coward, … buzzard, drunkard …” [etymonline, again]

    Can [ts] really be misheard as [z]?

    In the department of speculative and imaginative etymology, certainly it can. Bastard-Blitzard-Buzzard-Blizzard weather.

  6. No ü in und

    Gilding the lily. Just like transcribed Hebrew decorated with extra apostrophes. As far as I can tell only the BLM site is guilty of this.

    According to this,

    The river was named during the Snake War of 1864, when troops under the command of Colonel George B. Currey crossed it during a thunder storm, and gave to it the German name for thunder and lightning.

    Educated Americans of that time often learned German. Currey was a lawyer by training.

  7. Blizzard are as of a surname … 1600s

    Can we be sure those aren’t OCR errors? says variant of Blissett altered by folk etymology under the influence of the vocabulary word blizzard. — which couldn’t have happened ’til C19th? Blissett, Blesset or Blissot from Bliss, cognate with Blessed (as in Brian), variant Bleazard.

    OTOH I wouldn’t get my etymology from Surname Blizzard could be more simply ‘Bliss’ -ard “forming the second element in many personal names”. So doesn’t explain where all that snow came from.

  8. I’m quite a bit surprised there were major rivers still unnamed at that date

    In 1864 the white settling of Oregon was just starting. People like Currey were too busy killing Indians to ask them for place names.

    Ed.: Eastern Oregon, then as now, was much less settled.

  9. J.W. Brewer says

    I had totally forgotten that at one point in my teens i had known in passing a kid around my own age surnamed Blizzard. It’s the 7045th-most-common surname in the U.S. Census Bureau’s database using 1990 data. I can’t recall ever meeting anyone else with the name. The internet says there’s a guy with the same first name and about the right age living about 50 miles away (one state over) from where I lived back then, who may well be the same fellow. I don’t recall anyone making jokes/wordplay about related to that kid, so maybe the context in which I knew him was a year or two prior to the release of that culturally-significant (if you were a white American teenage boy of the right cohort) artifact.

  10. J.W. Brewer says

    As Y. indicates, the D. u. B. river is out in the high desert of Eastern Oregon which to this day remains very thinly populated: it’s in a county with 0.72 human beings per square mile. Oregon by 1864 was already a state of the Union and the more fertile Willamette Valley had been significantly settled by white folks, but the desert you might have cut across on your way there (if you weren’t prudent enough to take the more roundabout route where you knew in advance where the water would be) still had plenty of unmapped/unnamed (by Americans or Brits or French etc.) features.

    ETA: students of fringe/extreme American political phenomena may dimly recall this drawn-out armed confrontation from almost eight years ago. That was in the watershed of the D.u.B. river, pretty close to its mouth where it empties into Malheur Lake.

  11. @AntC, some of these records are manual transcriptions of headstones without photos, but say
    these 1618 and 1643 handwritten burial records look unmistakeable to me

  12. Surname Blizzard

    Another in the same American Speech chain that didn’t turn up in the search because the title was generic: Contributors’ Column.

    It proposes ‘wheat field’ for Blézard, though that doesn’t seem entirely convincing.

    Elsewhere it says from M.E. iblescede and equates with Blessed, Blisset, Blissit, Blizard, and Blissett.

    In any case, older than the 19th century.

  13. Wow, that AHD etymology must have been one of their last updates; as recently as the 2016 print version, it just said “Perhaps of imitative origin”. I’m again impressed with how much they updated. (I bought the app version of AHD a year or two ago, and was a bit disappointed to find that its content was frozen from 2011. Even so, I still recommend the app as an excellent value for the price.)

    Their definition could be improved, though: they lead with the technical “A violent snowstorm with winds blowing at a minimum speed of 35 miles (56 kilometers) per hour and visibility of less than one-quarter mile (400 meters) for three hours”, and only after that give the layman’s “A very heavy snowstorm with high winds.” Who needs that technical definition from a general dictionary? And those numbers aren’t universal truths, they’re from the US National Weather Service, but AHD doesn’t give the source and other agencies have slightly varying definitions. I’d say delete that definition, or at least put it second, not first; anyone who actually wants the numbers would be looking in a meteorology reference anyway.

  14. onomatopoeic? Imitative of/soundalike what, exactly?

    “Onomatopoeic” is the wrong word (languagehat told you to ignore that entry!); in current linguistics terms, blizzard involves not onomatopoeia (sound imitation) but phonesthetics, aka sound symbolism. Anatoly Liberman talks about that in almost every blog, for example this one from last year.

    And in looking up the OED’s definitions of onomatopoeia and phonestheme, I learned that Murray himself coined echoic as a synonym of onomatopoeic: “a term proposed by J. A. H. Murray and used in this Dictionary to describe formations which echo the sound which they are intended to denote or symbolize” — for example, in the etymologies of clang, chuckle, giggle. Murray thought onomatopoeic was a jaw-breaker and etymologically doesn’t mean sound-imitative but just generically word-making, while echoic was transparent. OK, he had a point, but echoic has not approached onomatopoeic in popularity outside the OED (echoic is not only less frequent in the Google ngram, it’s predominantly used in some other sense).

  15. The OED entry, alas, is still in its 1887 form, so it can be safely ignored.

    *knock, knock* Good morning, Craigie/Onions and Burchfield Appreciation Society here. The *etymology* is still in its 1887 form, but the rest of the entry was revised in 1933 and re-revised in 1972. Originally the earlier sense was defined cryptically as ‘a poser’; Craigie and Onions drew on the work of Allan Walker Read (as mentioned by MMcM above) to clarify that sense as ‘A sharp blow or knock; a shot’, adding more quotations, and earlier quotations for the snow sense back to 1870. Burchfield added a still earlier quotation for the snow sense, and of course later quotations, such as this famous one:

    1912 It was blowing a blizzard. He [sc. Captain Oates] said, ‘I am just going outside and may be some time.’ He went out into the blizzard and we have not seen him since.
    R. F. Scott, Journal March in Last Expedition (1913) vol. I. xx. 592

    And already in 1887 they had useful quotations demonstrating that the word had just recently reached the national scene in the early 1880s, e.g.

    1881 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.
    New York Nation 184

    it’s a very satisfying word, much better than snowstorm.

    “Satisfying” is grounds for suspecting there’s a phonestheme there.

  16. I bought the app version of AHD a year or two ago, and was a bit disappointed to find that its content was frozen from 2011.

    Serendipity alert: immediately after reading your latest comments here, I pulled the “random post” lever and got this 2011 post about “the new fifth edition” of the AHD.

    “Satisfying” is grounds for suspecting there’s a phonestheme there.

    Quite so.

  17. Would there be German speakers in “mid-19th century regional America … (Western United States)”?

    At one time they were the majority of the population over very large areas. And certainly there were innumerable “soldiers of German origin.” Ever hear of Eisenhower?

  18. Traced on the carapace just above the three heads was this inscription:

    BURG EISENHOWER, a.d. 2495

    And then below it in much larger Latin letters:


    “What does ‘Man-hunter, Model Eleven’ mean?”

    “That’s me,” whistled the machine. “How is it you don’t know me if you are a German?”

    “Of course, I’m a German, you fool!” said Carlotta. “Do I look like a Russian?”

    “What is a Russian?” said the machine.

    Carlotta stood in the blue light wondering, dreaming, dreading dreading the unknown which had materialized around her.

  19. J.W. Brewer says

    @AntC: this is now perhaps a chapter of U.S. history little-known in Aotearoa, but during and immediately after WW1 there were large-scale freak-outs in parts of the U.S., not least in some of the westerly prairie states given their particular demographics, about the supposed menace to public safety and patriotic unity posed by allegedly insufficiently assimilated German-Americans. In 1920, Robert Meyer was a teacher at a small private school in rural Nebraska affiliated with the Lutheran church. He was arrested and fined for teaching a ten-year-old boy how to read the Bible in German, in violation of a state statute passed during that agita. A few years later, in the still-significant case of Meyer v. Nebraska, the Supreme Court held that statute unconstitutional, based on some mix of Mayer’s right to earn an honest living and the right of the parents of the students to direct their children’s education as they saw fit.

    My own most recent German-origin immigrant ancestor (a great-great-grandfather) married on this side of the Atlantic an immigrant lady from Co. Fermanagh in Ulster who spoke no German, thus facilitating assimilation of himself and their children to Anglophony, but not all such immigrants were absorbed via exogamy so quickly.

  20. Currently east European states (West Slavic, Baltic, Finland) press EU to stop issuing visas to Russians motivating it by the treat to public security from the latter. Not a parallel situation (we’re speaking about citizens) and no, I’m not complaining (at least some of these states might consider themselves to be in a state of war with Russia and anyway, what bothers me about this war is not European reaction) but the nominal excuse chosen by them is “public security” (quite nonsensical in this case, but apparently believed to sound reasonable) rather than “we don’t like them”.

    (also Syrian refugees, more or less universally believed in Russia to be a security threat for Europe and Russia, because ISIS. And of coruse Trump and Iranians. But I think “Russia” and “Trump” don’t seem to be representative of Western modernity.).

  21. In the 1850s alone, some million Germans immigrated to the United States, whose total population stood at 20-some million.

  22. Thanks @RogerC, @JWB; the research had moved quickly on — even before your comments. I know it’s hard to keep up.

    The needed dating was early C19th, not 1920’s. The ‘Army commander’ it turned out was born in Indiana, educated at Wabash College. (See @Y’s link.) An educated man, he knew at least a few German swear words. (my first link) was just making stuff up; the Bureau of Land Management (my second) is more sober — although the ‘ünd’ is on them.

    Eisenhower’s ancestors migrated to Pennsylvania, not “Western United States”. Although wp says migrated from Karlsbrunn, it also says ‘Pennsylvania Dutch’ origin, and that’s more how I think of ‘Ike’.

    (Yes, I’d heard of the freak-outs. Also the disgrace of imprisoning Japanese during WWII. Also the stupidity of British ‘Intelligence’ in not employing Jews as codebreakers in WWII — because they were German.)

  23. Also during WWI, Canada interned some 8600 men of “Austro-Hungarian” origins, mostly Ukrainians and Germans.

  24. CuConnacht says

    While looking around for the name of Franz Sigel, German-born Union major general during the Civil War, I learned that 200,000 German immigrants served in the Union Army. Lincoln’s Secretary of the Interior, Carl Schurz, was also German-born. Like Sigel (and according to family lore, one of my ancestors), he left Germany after taking part in the failed revolutions of 1848.

  25. I said: “Onomatopoeic” is the wrong word

    To be precise, it’s the wrong word here and now; I’m not saying Murray made a mistake, I’m saying the technical vocabulary has changed. Onomatopoeic has been used more broadly in the past, and indeed that’s probably why Murray coined echoic to refer specifically to sound imitation as opposed to symbolism, and why he did *not* say blizzard was “echoic”. But today we (here) use onomatopoeic narrowly for sound imitation.

    The terms that the OED seems to prefer in the current revision are “imitative” and “expressive” respectively — I like it, they’re relatively transparent. For example, moo and honk are imitative (honk did not exist until the early 1800s, and was originally specifically the sound of a wild goose), while jerk, v. is “Either (i) an expressive formation, or (ii) a variant of yark v.2″, which itself is “probably at least partly an expressive formation”. As Anatoly Liberman discusses, there’s not always a hard and fast distinction, which may be why the OED uses “An imitative or expressive formation” as the etymology summary formula even when the full etymology uses one or the other.

  26. CuConnqcht says

    I should not have relied on my memory. Schurz was also a Union general during the civil war. He did not become Secretary of the Interior until 1877 (under Rutherford B Hayes).

  27. So, “echoic” = “onomatopoeic”, “expressive” = “sound symbolic”, and “iconic” encompasses both. Is that right?

  28. Even in the mid-eighteenth century Benjamin Franklin was famously paranoid about unassimilated German enclaves destroying American’s culture.

  29. David Marjanović says

    Transylvanian Tartars FTW, though.

  30. German enclaves destroying American’s culture

    Drumpft. It just took a few generations.

  31. Dmitry Pruss says

    Mainzer Adelsverein also worked hard to establish a German princely state in Texas in the 1840s, with Price Carl von Solms-Braunfels at its helm. The legendary incompetence of the German noblemen (and maybe a few transplant seeds of the 1848 revolution) doomed the schema, but the settlers’ capital of New Braunfels remained a thriving German center for generations & still boasts its German heritage.

  32. The Donner und Blitzen rises high on Steens Mountain, an unusual geologic formation in southeastern Oregon. The area is remote, mostly desert at lower elevations, and rough and rocky higher up – poor farming or grazing land, and difficult to traverse. It’s a wonderful place for hiking, though, filled with gorges and waterfalls. I’ve been there only once, about 45 years ago, and I recall my confusion at a river named after a couple of Santa’s reindeer.

  33. In Campbell and Mixco’s Glossary of Historical Linguistics, onomatopoeic is defined only in the narrow sense = OED1 “echoic” = OED3 “imitative”, while iconic encompasses both:

    iconicity A non-arbitrary, motivated link between a linguistic form’s phonetic shape and its meaning. In historical linguistics, it is often assumed that iconic material may resist changes that would lessen the iconic link between form and meaning, and, also, that change can be favored to increase iconicity. … See onomatopoeia, sound symbolism.

    … and those are given narrower definitions. I have a question on the example, though (not that I’m remotely qualified to quibble with Campbell):

    For example, English peep should have undergone the Great Vowel Shift to give /paip/ (as pipe actually did, from earlier /pi:p/), but such a change would have decreased the connection between the sound of ‘peep’ and the noise birds make, and therefore the change was resisted.

    But peep may not have existed before the Great Vowel Shift: earliest known evidence of the noun ?a1500, verb 1534. Rather, wouldn’t it be more accurate to say that either pipe split up and left part of itself behind now spelled peep, and/or pipe moved out and left a hole behind that was filled by imitative peep? (At the same time, we do still say that birds pipe, even though /paip/ doesn’t sound so much like a bird anymore.)

    I’m pretty sure that OED3 “expressive” = linguists’ “sound-symbolic” and “phonesthetic”, but unless I’ve missed something, they don’t define it on their terminology page, nor (in this technical sense) in the recently revised entry expressive. I’m sending in a complaint. They do have a satisfactory definition of phonestheme: “A phoneme or group of phonemes having recognizable semantic associations, as a result of appearing in a number of words of similar meaning.”

  34. Some phonesthemes are fully arbitrary, like English f- in false, fake, fraud, forge. Others have a suggestion of the referent without being clearly imitative, like /i/ sounds associated with smallness.

  35. Giacomo Ponzetto says

    If you start being metal with the “Donner ünd Blitzen River” it’s only a matter of time before you’re rewarded with a surrealist Donner ьnd Blitzen River. Even more wild and scenic, if you ask me.

  36. And here I thought we are talking about Döner und Blintzen.

  37. bʰle isn’t a possible root, but bʰleh₁ is — the problems with casual notations that think laryngeals (or, in old-fashioned notation, length marks) aren’t worth the bother. This is the source of blow according to LIV.

    bʰel is no better — that’s just a Pokorny-style ‘root of a root’. LIV gives here bʰleig, though it queries if it’s actually of PIE date.

  38. At any rate, it’s a very satisfying word, much better than snowstorm.

    Which is why, in New Hampshire at least, they describe different meteorological phenomena. A blizzard is a storm that dumps a satisfying amount of snow, ideally a foot or more. A snowstorm is often unsatisfying, usually just a few inches.

  39. John Cowan says

    (At the same time, we do still say that birds pipe, even though /paip/ doesn’t sound so much like a bird anymore.)

    By the same token, Greek sheep do not say /vi vi/, though the spelling βῆ βῆ (now without accent) has been current for millennia.

  40. “Some phonesthemes are fully arbitrary, like f- in false, fake, fraud, forge.”

    English having several hundred thousand words, one could probably find scores of “fully arbitrary” phonesthemes, such as word-initial /f/ indicating a positive attitude of one person toward another, as in fatherly, fraternal, faithful, and fairness. So does /f/ connote both likable behavior (fatherly, etc.) and unlikable behavior (false, etc.)?

  41. A blizzard is a storm that dumps a satisfying amount of snow, ideally a foot or more.

    In the DC area, blizzards (which were rare) meant snow but also high winds and low visibility. I’ve only been in Maine a couple of years and haven’t experienced any such conditions, so I don’t know whether terminology here differs.

  42. In Wisconsin, I think a blizzard has to be some kind of ‘serious snowstorm’, but there’s maybe some variation in exactly what counts. Prolonged heavy snow, significant accumulation, and high winds are all prototypical, but it might be a kind of ‘pick two’ situation. Also, if it’s a school day without at least a two-hour delay, it’s not a blizzard. Might even have to be a full cancellation to qualify.

    (Going off of usage growing up there. But I haven’t lived in blizzard-ful places since, for the most part, so I think I’m fairly uncontaminated, lexically speaking.)

  43. Also during WWI, Canada interned some 8600 men of “Austro-Hungarian” origins, mostly Ukrainians and Germans.

    I was thinking of pointing out to AntC that a 1980s government-produced ethnic atlas shows Americans of German origin considerably outnumbering Anglo-Americans proper, till I remembered that this atlas (whose deficiencies we’ve explored before) includes Austrians as Germans, and most of the Americans I’m aware of who claim “Austria” as their country of origin are in fact Croats, Ukrainians, Slovenes, etc.

  44. most of the Americans I’m aware of who claim “Austria” as their country of origin are in fact Croats, Ukrainians, Slovenes, etc.

    Maybe in 1890, but 1980? Doesn’t seem likely. I know many Americans with Croatian, Ukrainian, Slovenian, Czech, Moravian, etc. roots. None of them ever referred to themselves as Austrian. Even before 1914 America was a hotbed of nationalist and separatist feelings among immigrants from the Donau Monarchy. Maybe the US Government still called them all Austrian in 1914 but that would have come to an end after WWI. The only Americans I am aware of who occasionally refer to themselves as „Austrian“ but are not „ethnic German“ by pre 1918 categorization are descendants of Austrian Jews.

  45. The 1900-ish censuses certainly used “Austria” to refer to all of Austro-Hungary. Rodger, are the people you’re talking about calling themselves Austrian based only on early census records of their forebears?

  46. J.W. Brewer says

    @Vanya, and I think I’ve heard anecdotally (this fits perfectly well with stories about some Ashkenazim being disproportionately nostalgic for the old Hapsburg order since they were the largest ethnic group therein that did not end up with their “own” state in the aftermath) of Ashkenazic-Americans whose ancestors hailed from Austrian-ruled Galicia or Bukovina or somewhere else quite far east of the post-1918 borders of Austria holding themselves out as “Austrian” rather than associating themselves with the subsequent governments of those territories.

  47. government-produced ethnic atlas

    i think it’s safe to assume that’s not going to be based on any kind of personal identitarian choice, but on nationality of origin as listed in census records. and that basically reflects the political situation at the time of emigration (with some variation depending on how the enumerator asks the question). which means that plenty of people, including some of my great-grandparents, are still going to be listed as “austrian” in the data from the 1960s and 70s that a 1980s production will be based on (and others as “russian” according to the pre-brest-litovsk borders).

  48. Dmitry Pruss says

    Apropos “Austrians”, one family history trail I followed included an elderly woman locked up in internment camp in England in WWII due to her being an “Austrian”.
    She actually possessed an expired Austro-Hungarian passport, but she never had any actual roots in the Austro-Hungarian Empire. She was born in Odessa to a Jewish father who fraudulently obtain Austro-Hungarian papers to avoid Russian draft. By about 1890, Russian Government changed policies and started expelling Jewish foreign subjects. The fake identity papers became a curse instead of a blessing. The family was deported, briefly lived in Istanbul, and eventually settled in the UK.

  49. J.W. Brewer says

    Usually the answers you get to the U.S. Census questions are whatever the person says, with no fact-checking and often with multiple ways to understand the question, especially if ones ancestors came from a place where boundaries have shifted over time. It would not surprise me if you had let’s say 3 Ashkenazic-Americans descended from 3 different families that had all left the same shtetl at the same time 110+ years ago and all ended up on the same ship to NY but who on a recent census variously answered the same question with “Lithuanian,” “Polish,” and “Russian.” Because the U.S. for idiosyncratic (but benignly-intended) reasons has a very strong taboo against collecting census data on religious affiliation and views Jewishness as a solely religious category rather than ethnic/”national” category, the Ashkenazic-American ethnicity does not fit into the available boxes very well. By contrast, you can claim to be Armenian even if your ancestors never within the last millennium or two lived within the borders of the current Armenian nation-state and that’s fine – no one these days is gonna pressure you to say “Turkish” or “Lebanese” or what have you instead. Plus of course Irish/Scottish/Welsh have always been acceptable answers whether or not there was a distinct political entity corresponding to them or not, although that may just reflect the fact that the British backstory of the U.S. means our government understands distinctions like that and their importance to the individuals concerned in way that it may not understand comparable distinctions in other places of immigrant origin.

    ETA: I don’t have the impression that the Census Bureau checks to see whether the answers you give on a particular census are consistent with the answers you gave 10 years previously and it’s pretty clear that on some of the racial-identity questions quite substantial numbers of individuals have recategorized themselves from one census to the next. The “origins” / ethnicity question maybe has lower stakes, so I don’t know if there’s the same level of recategorization or no.

  50. David Marjanović says

    At the same time, we do still say that birds pipe, even though /paip/ doesn’t sound so much like a bird anymore.

    The HG consonant shift has saved us from that (long before the diphthongization ever hit): pfeifen has come to mean “whistle”, which is what it sounds like.

  51. Trond Engen says

    Norway was in a personal union — or a personal slash foreign relations union — with Sweden from 1814 to 1905, which means that both the start and the apex of Norwegian emigration to the U.S. happened in that period. Norwegian immigrants could be named as Swedes in contemporary sources, but I haven’t researched how common it was or to what degree it reflected official policy on either side of the Atlantic. Policy or not, the two national groups settled in the same districts, and intermingled and intermarried as fellow Scandinavians and Lutherans, but the Norwegians must have maintained a clear sense of distinctness, since their descendants would be in no doubt of their ancestral country of origin. Maybe that would have been different without the full independence in 1905, or if independence hadn’t come at a time when the contacts with the old country were still close and personal.

  52. J.W. Brewer says

    @Trond FWIW, quite a lot of Lutheran congregations in the U.S. back in those days explicitly identified themselves as “Norwegian” versus “Swedish” (or versus Danish, Finnish, Slovak, etc. – not specifying often meant “German,” I think, whereas “English” was sometimes explicitly stated in a congregation’s name to indicate that the membership was all assimilated enough to use that as their liturgical language). And often the “Norwegian” congregations initially banded together in synods and denominational structures only with other “Norwegian” congregations. The “Norwegian Lutheran Church of America” per wikipedia took the N-word out of its name in 1946, whereas the more hardline faction that had rejected a 1917 merger with squishier groups was formally “the Norwegian Synod of the American Evangelical Lutheran Church” until it dropped the N-word in 1957.

    Obviously with intermarriage among different Scandinavian-American groups etc. not 100% of any “Norwegian” congregation’s membership would be Norwegian. But still.

    ETA: Minnesota’s institutions of higher education still include both Gustavus Adolphus College (founded by Swedish-Americans) and St. Olaf College (founded by Norwegian-Americans). Swedish-origin Upsala College in New Jersey unfortunately shut down a few decades ago, whereas Finlandia University on the U.P. of Michigan only went under (“due to enrollment and financial challenges”) this year.

  53. Yeah, based on my experience I would say that the number of Norwegian-Americans who were in any doubt that they are Norwegians and not Swedes is very small indeed. It has never been a distinction without a difference.

  54. Trond Engen says

    Exactly, which is why I was surprised the first time I noticed that sometimes, in some places, or contexts, the distinction wasn’t made. But as I said, I haven’t really researched the subject.

  55. Giacomo Ponzetto says

    @Rodger C, @rozele, @J.W. Brewer: Census data on Americans’ origins since 1980 come overwhelmingly (and quite possibly exclusively) from self-reported answers to three questions: Hispanic origin, race, and ancestry.

    The Census tells us nothing about consistency across a respondent’s answer to the three questions, which clearly has to be limited because totals vary widely. As I’ve mentioned here recently, in 2020 5.6 million respondents reported their ethnicity as Cuban, but only 2.2 million reported their race as Cuban (alone or in any combination), and in 2000 (we are not told for 2020) only 1.1 million reported their ancestry as Cuban.

    The ancestry question allows a maximum of two mentions, and treats Hispanic and non-Hispanic origins identically. There’s some appeal in that, but the Census consistently behaves as if it knew the costs outweigh the benefits. Its general approach is to take Hispanic origin from the Hispanic-origin question (which typically yields the largest numbers) and non-Hispanic origin from the race question if possible. Until 2020, that meant resorting to the ancestry question for non-Hispanic, non-Asian/Pacific ancestries: they are the only ones included in most available tabulations of ancestry. In 2020, detailed write-in categories for “White” and “Black or African Am.” were added to the race question. Predictably, the Census is now planning to retire the ancestry question altogether as soon as 2025.

    The Census definitely doesn’t check for consistency of individual answers across decades (which would be a daunting task). You can play with 1980 ancestry, 1990 ancestry, 2000 ancestry and 2020 race and ethnicity and again it seems unlikely the changes can be explained without people answering differently in different decades.

    Mentions (millions) in 1980 – 1990 – 2000 – 2020
    English: 49.6 – 32.7 – 24.5 – 46.6
    German: 49.2 – 57.9 – 42.8 – 45.0

    The 1990 report also notes explicitly that self-reported ancestries of Ashkenazim Jew, Hebrew, Jewish, Sephardic, and Yiddish all go to the residual. As the 1980 report explains, that’s because (as J.W. notes) the Census considers itself forbidden from collecting information on religion (presumably by 13 USC 221).

    I wonder where that leaves their ongoing tabulation of Assyrian, Chaldean and Syriac ancestries and then races. Most notably, a response of “Nestorian” used to be (and for all I know still is) considered valid and tabulated as Assyrian. I’m afraid Census lawyers may need a refresher course in Christology.

  56. “a 1980s government-produced ethnic atlas” — perhaps you are thinking of We the people : an atlas of America’s ethnic diversity, which was published by Macmillan. Most maps used the 1980 US census data, but not e.g. the “Jewish Population” map.

  57. > By the same token, Greek sheep do not say /vi vi/, though the spelling βῆ βῆ (now without accent) has been current for millennia.

    But they once did, back before the Hellenic Ovine Vowel Shift.

    A great many people from families whose arrival was further back give American as their census response, and these are disproportionately English, so the English German comparisons aren’t particularly meaningful.

  58. Mollymooly: Yes I was. A fascinating volume with some noticeably odd features due to methodology and assumptions. The one that thought “Scotch-Irish” was an invalid response.

    The response “American” was very common in the Southern Uplands. Some commentators tried to make this out as an index of xenophobia, but I think it really meant “British Protestant, here before 1776, fought the Revolution, so don’t you dare call me British.”

    To attempt to answer the questions directed to me by name: I think we’re dealing with people (my reference point is fellow young boomers in the 70s, basically) who’d say, “My grandfather always talked about his childhood in Zagreb/Lemberg/Uzhhorod, Austria.”

  59. J.W. Brewer says

    This map uses 2000 Census data to show the most common (meaning plurality, not necessarily one with an overwhelming percentage) ancestry by county throughout the U.S., so you can see the mostly-Southernness/Appalachianness of the “American” belt.* Although as you get into the flatlands and “African-American” becomes the plurality choice in much of the non-Upland rural South, one suspects that “American” might remain the plurality among the white population. What you would ideally also like is a map that lumps together “American” with “English”** and other Anglo-Protestant identifiers, such as Scottish & Scotch-Irish etc. (backing out overlaps),*** to see whether and where that combination overtakes German – you can with a little bit of care in your choice of highways drive all the way from the Delaware River to the Pacific Coast without entering a county not shown as having a German plurality.

    *The color used for “American” is hard to distinguish from that used for “Norwegian,” but the latter is all counties very close to the Canadian border and comparatively distant from any territory ever claimed or raided by the Confederacy.

    **Note the two quite separate “English” belts. One in the parts of rural Northern New England (and a few other disconnected places running from upstate New York down to tidewater Virginia) where later immigrants never became that numerous; the other in the Mormon-heavy territory in and around Utah.

    *** Giacomo P., who sounds like he knows what he’s talking about, says the relevant question allows a maximum of two choices. That’s not true of the form and its instructions, but it may be true that if someone gives three or more answers to the fill-in-the-blank open-ended versions of the question (I can give six, and no doubt there are plenty of other Americans with pedigrees more pluralistic than mine) only the first two get entered into the database, although for people of mixed race as well as mixed ethnicity within a race it then gets more complicated. In any event, if I give more than two answers next census I shall think more of how to order the ones after the first (since if I give all six, numbers two through four are crowded so close enough together in percentage terms as to be within the margin of error given imperfect and incomplete data).

  60. Giacomo Ponzetto says

    @J.W. Brewer:

    The Ancestry question is currently in the American Community Survey, probably not for much longer. If you have the dubious privilege of answering that survey, thanks on behalf of social-science researchers worldwide!

    I should admit I had not bothered checking that questionnaire, but it works exactly as you described. The question is asked as follows.

    13. What is this person’s ancestry or ethnic origin?
    (For example: Italian, Jamaican, African Am., Cambodian, Cape Verdean, Norwegian, Dominican, French Canadian, Haitian, Korean, Lebanese, Polish, Nigerian, Mexican, Taiwanese, Ukrainian, and so on.)

    I’d have guessed the Census told respondents to give a maximum of two answers, but my guess would have been incorrect. They only tell researchers that at most the first two answers are coded.

    If you answer only the decennial population census, you won’t get the Ancestry question. Answers to the Race question are currently coded in much greater detail. The Census codes a maximum of six write-in responses per write-in area, so your total of six will get coded no matter what they are.

    The maximum number of coded answers is 39 = 6 white write-ins + 6 Black write-ins + 6 native write-ins + all 9 Asian/Pacific checkboxes (Chinese, Filipino, Asian Indian, Vietnamese, Korean, Japanese, Native Hawaiian, Samoan, Chamorro) + 6 other Asian/Pacific + 6 “some other” races. Again unbeknownst to the respondent, the Census will maintain a maximum of eight. Surely there’s a methodological document detailing the procedure for picking which eight, but I’m not going to look for it.

  61. Giacomo Ponzetto says

    You can have some fun with 2020 Detailed Races and Ethnicities maps on the Census website, but the visualization tool makes a series of user-unfriendly decisions about what you can display.

    What I find most puzzling is that you cannot display the plurality of respondents (96.6 million) whose detailed race is tabulated as 1222 Other White, not specified because they checked the White box but didn’t answer the prompt to write in more detail, or wrote in “White,” “Anglo,” or other responses not elsewhere classified (such as “American”).

    Fun fact from the underlying data. By postal abbreviations, the detailed R&Es that beat it to first place are:
    African-American in DC
    English in UT
    German in MN, NE, ND, SD, WI
    Mexican in CA
    Puerto Rican in PR

    Truly exceptional is HI, where the unspecified white code falls to seventh position behind Filipino > Native Hawaiian > Japanese > Chinese (exc. Taiwanese) > German > Irish.

  62. A Disney tall tale scene with “D. Crockett” has him bank a shot off several pans, etc., then catch the bullet between his teeth..
    Not a great etymological lead (and lead), but Signor Blitz, a magician (1810-1877) claimed to catch a bullet in his hand.
    There are many people with the family name Blizzard. Most early spellings as Blitzard are errors. Not all?

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