Geoff Pullum has been beating down the myth of the many Eskimo words for snow since forever, so he’s doubtless seen Phil James’s The Eskimos’ Hundred Words for Snow, which has apparently been around since at least 1996—but it’s new to me and perhaps to you, so pay it a visit. (Via Jim Gorman at Wordorigin.)

In case you didn’t look very closely at the list, I will advise you now that it is a joke. It has entries like “puntla: a mouthful of snow because you fibbed” and “tla-na-na: snow mixed with the sound of old rock and roll from a portable radio.” Do not cite it as an Inuit reference!


  1. I started to feel nostalgic for my stint in the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta(aka Y-K Delta). I recalled that my teachers, Oscar Alexie and Sophie Barnes, both truly native 😉 of the area, who had taught me their dialect of Yup’ik (this means the People, as I understand does Inuik or In~upiak).
    Then I looked at Phil James’ posting, and soon was laughing with abandon. I remembered what one of the Francis family of the P.E.I. Micmac had told me, how they loved to make stuff up for some American lady’s Tales of the Micmac. (She had them published as ancient Micmac folklore. Apparently her sources were being creative, but hey, they’re great stories none-the-less).
    I would love to meet this Phil James. Is he Alaskan or Canadian?

  2. My version of the story is that the Inuit had no words for snow at all. It was just pervasive, like God, so you can actually ignore it and be a sort of atheist of snow.
    “Fat Bear, the lady wants to know what’s the name of that white shit all over the place”. “How the fuck would I know, Enchanted Walrus? Tell her we call it white shit”.

  3. Zizka – it seems to me there’s a mountain somewhere out west that got named that way. The first European to see it grabbed the first native he came across, pointed to the mountain and asked what it was called. Since the first native he found couldn’t speak whatever European language the first European to see the mountain was using, he replied, in his own language, “What? I don’t understand what you’re saying?” The European, being ignorant of the native language, assumed the question had been answered and that’s been the name of the mountain ever since.
    The story may be apochryphal, but it’s not totally unbelievable.

  4. Scott, that reminds me of the story regarding the word “kangaroo”. Apparently the European explorers’ native informants came from a part of Australia where there were no kangaroos. When asked what this creature was, they replied with the phrase “I don’t know” in their language, which was transcribed as “kangaroo”.

  5. That link in the previous comment is very confusing: I can’t tell whether they’re debunking the ‘I don’t know’ story or not. But it’s just an urban myth: ‘kangaroo’ is from Guugu-Yimidhirr _gangurru_ ‘kangaroo sp.’, and the medial consonant proves the direction of borrowing. The Guugu-Yimidhirr represents [N], so Cook wrote it down as ‘kangooroo’, but the digraph was later read as the more English-sounding [Ng].

  6. Michael Farris says

    I’d heard that sometimes a group would gain their name in English through neighboring groups, so that the English name of group X is “the enemy” or “bad people” in the language of group Y.
    Can’t think of specific examples though.

  7. Thanks for exploding that myth for me, NW.
    More about it here.

  8. Further examples – some debunked, some apparently true – at the alt.usage.english FAQ.

  9. I believe that “Sioux” (the Dakota) is a Chippewa word (condensed from longer word something like “Nadouessioux”), and Chippewa / Ojibwa (the Anishinabe, I think) is a Huron word, both of them meaning something like “enemy” or some version of “other”.
    “America”, named after a mapmaker/explorer’s first name, is one of the least meaningful of names. It is, however, distantly cognate with my own surname (via Emerick), so everything’s cool with me.

  10. Two possible examples for Michael F.
    Samoyeds. Call themselves “Nenets”, Russian samo-yed = “self-eater”, ie cannibal. Although I think the actual Russian etymology is different.
    Supposedly “Eskimo” is Cree for “eaters of raw meat”, hence the term Inuit being current these days.
    (Wikipedia used to refresh my memory on both of these).

  11. have you heard the one about Lojban having a hundred words for “and”–?
    (it’s not far from the truth.)

  12. Zizka: Sioux itself is from “Nadowesiw” – nadowe(snake/enemy) and the Central Algonquian -siw (little). The Iroquois were the Nadowebog (big snakes.) Remember Crispus Attucks, the first American killed in the American revolution? Half African, half Natick indian: Atuh (Deer) + ks (eastern Alg. “small”) I doubt that Chippewa is from Huron. Huron is Iroquoian and there for lacks labial consonants like ‘p’. I believe it’s simply an alternative spelling for Ojibwe.
    Do people make things up in the face of invasive questioning by anthropologists? You bet they do! Check out Truman Michelson’s “The mythical origin of the White Buffalo Dance of the Fox Indians” in the Fortieth annual report of the Bureau of American Ethnology, 1918. He also published the full text of the White Buffalo Dance ceremony somewhere (I don’t have access to my files here.)
    Well, as I heard it, the Meskwaki at Tama, Iowa had this Anthropologist asking about their sacred bundles and ceremonies, so they simply made up a fake bundle and a fake “White Buffalo” ceremony and let Michelson record it and take the fake “sacred” bundle. For years anthropologists had used Michelson’s work as one of the very few full texts of a bundle ceremony. In the 1970s, however, one folklorist working with the Meskwaki was told they did it to put Michelson off the trail of their real sacred bundle, which they were afraid to lose to the Smithsonian.

  13. Oops! Sorry. The Meskwaki texts were in Michelson’s “The owl sacred pack of the Fox Indians” in the Bureau of American Ethnology Bulletin 72, 1921.

  14. Ojibwe, as I understand, is the correct form, and Chippewa adapted to English.
    The poet Ray Young Bear is a bilingual Meskwaki. His book “The Winter of the Salamander” includes some very affecting poems, and he’s also written prose fiction and non-fiction.

  15. Do people make things up in the face of invasive questioning by anthropologists?
    You bet they do! And not only with anthropologists. There’s a story which admittedly sounds apocryphal (like the “kangaroo” one) but is, I believe, true.
    In Melbourne since 1856 there has been a parade held every year in March on Labour Day. This parade originally grew out of trade union celebrations to mark the establishment of the 8 hour working day, a union victory which had reduced the length of the (six day) working week from 60 hours to 48 (a world-first, as it happens).
    Over time, however, this parade had lost much of its message of worker solidarity and unionism – which was now generally celebrated on May the 1st, anyway – and in 1955 the conservative government in power decided that it was time to depoliticize the event altogether.
    They rebranded the parade and relaunched it with a (lame) new theme:
    “Let’s get together and have fun!”
    and then cast about for a brand new name to encapsulate it.
    Stories differ about how they settled upon the local Aboriginal word Moomba but, alas for the organizers, it turned out that this word actually meant something else entirely (or was a very literal translation, take your pick).

  16. Can anyone confirm the “no camels in the Koran” observation?

  17. Incidentally, if a bunch of people from society X make up a bunch of stories out of nothing, those stories will be characteristic of society x even if entirely original, fictional, and humorous. I’ve been told that Eskimo (Inuit) stonecuts are something they’ve only started doing in the last half-century or so, but they’re still Inuit stonecuts. Just contemporary. And if you like them, they’re good.

  18. Koran 7.40: Surely (as for) those who reject Our communications and turn away from them haughtily, the doors of heaven shall not be opened for them, nor shall they enter the garden until the camel pass through the eye of the needle; and thus do We reward the guilty.

  19. It’s not quite true that the Inuit have only recently started carving. They always carved soapstone because, well, it’s easy to do and they get bored out there on the ice. The Inuit used to make toys that way and tended to treat carvings as disposable items rather than art.
    Later on – roughly WWII when a lot of US, UK and Canadian Army guys started moving through the north – the white man shows up, calls it art and starts paying cash. Aboriginal entrepreneurship quickly takes hold and suddenly carving is the traditional Inuit artform. When I was in elementary school in the 70s, my school sobered up a local master to teach basic carving to the Inuit kids and white kids alike. I flunked.
    Inuit carving is not in any sense fake. There are genuine Inuit sculptors who do excellent work. There are also plenty of Inuit hacks who take advantage of white folks who don’t know better, but that’s hardly a first in the history of art.

  20. The Japanese language has two words that refer to the snowy regions of the country: yukiguni, or snow country, which romanticizes the snowy life of northern Japan, and the more technical gōsetsu chitai, “heavy snow regions” which is used to define places with snowfall sufficient to negatively impact local life and local industry. Notably, somewhere near half of Japan’s total area—ten prefectures and areas within fourteen more—could be designated snowy regions. Kerosene consumption, however, perhaps better reflects the true regionality, as well as home economics of winter in these regions rather than ski resorts: A clear high consumption trend-line that moves from Hokkaido and Aomori in the north, through the Tohoku prefectures to the south, and includes Nagano in central Japan.

  21. Yukiguni, of course, is the name of the Kawabata novel (I think the only one of his I’ve read).

  22. the name of the Kawabata novel

    Есть их у нас/q.v.

  23. How many words are there in Icelandic for the devil?

    It is difficult to say how many words there are for devil in Icelandic. Most of the known examples owe their existence to the fact that it was not considered proper to name the devil, so he was referred to by nicknames or by mutation of his name. In the Icelandic thesaurus the following words are listed under fjandi (devil):

    sá fetótti
    Gamli í Niðurkoti
    sá í neðra
    sá vondi


Speak Your Mind