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Wintry mix

Listening to the radio in the car yesterday, I heard an announcer warn of the possibility of “rain activity” later in the day. How, I wondered, does rain activity differ from rain? And wouldn’t rain inactivity be, well, clearing?

Rain activity is analogous to the dreaded snow event, which is somehow grander than mere snow. The extra note of drama is probably unnecessary in Baltimore, since residents here fly into panic at the prospect of more than a flurry, hastening to the supermarket to buy up all the bread, milk and toilet paper, and stopping at the video store on the way home to check out everything that isn’t a documentary. Schools close, government offices shut down, and cars race through rapidly emptying streets toward homes where the TV set is permanently tuned to the Weather Channel.

The incitement to such panic is one of the principal occupations of local television news programs, where announcements of a possible snowfall are as portentous as warnings of an asteroid hurtling toward Earth.

A day later, of course, when the killer storm has veered to the north, or to the south, or retired to a cabin in the mountains, it’s necessary to shift focus rapidly to the next potential threat from the sky.

A thread on the American Copy Editors Society’s discussion board reminded me yesterday of Geoffrey K. Pullum’s fine book, The Great Eskimo Vocabulary Hoax, in which the title essay explodes the hoary myth that the Inuit have an uncommonly large number of related terms for snow. That honor should more properly go to TV meteorologists, who have, in addition to snow, snow event, snowfall, snowstorm, snowflakes, sleet, slush, wintry mix, blizzard, precipitation, icy pellets, powder (for skiing), blanket and the apparently irresistible vulgarism white stuff.

The sun is out, but the forecast says it might snow. Got my milk. Got my bread. Got my toilet paper. Got Season 2 of The West Wing on DVD. I’m staying home till it looks safe.



Posted by John McIntyre at 11:16 AM | | Comments (8)


Yeah. "Event." I hate that word and try not to use it.

A campaign rally? "The campaign event."

A volunteer fire company dinner? "The annual event."

Billboard north of Salibury on US 13: "Auction Event."

Not to mention manifold "Sales Events."

Perhaps a new form of Grammatical Law is necessary, where those writers who use "event" lose one typing finger per occurrence.

moisture, don't forget the moisture

Thank you for lambasting some of my peeves. "Wintry mix" always reminds me of "Halloween mix" for a different season. I envision red, green and white candy falling from the sky. The one that really gets my goat is "shower activity." Seems to me that is a purely private matter and ought not to be discussed during the weather segment!

Rain inactivity might also be flooding. Or at least standing water.

Hilarious post. This describes exactly what happens twice a year down here in Fort Worth. A longtime weather forecaster here in North Texas once said he never mentioned the word snow unless he could look out the window and see it falling.

Nice post. My favorite unnecessary weather verbiage is "winter storm." It's rain and wind and maybe snow, it's February, what other kind of storm could it possibly be?

A close second is "weather conditions," as in "hazardous weather conditions." If it weren't for the conditions, the weather would no doubt be delightful, but the conditions are severe, so leave a few extra minutes for the commute this morning.

Wintry mix? That's rock salt and gravel, isn't it?

It's the weather bureaucracy's fearmongering.

(There's nothing there now, but for example our local NOAA weather page
puts up "Hazardous Weather Alerts" for things like ... Wind ... Thunderstorm ... if you've lived on the Chesapeake for more than 15 minutes, and it's summer, the noun "weather" automatically includes thunderstorms.

Another fine book from Pullum (with colleague Mark Liberman): "Far from the Madding Gerund."

Also, Geoffrey Pullum was quite generous with his time when he responded to an e-mail I sent about a dispute we were having in my newsroom. He's a hell of a guy.

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About John McIntyre
John McIntyre, mild-mannered editor for a great metropolitan newspaper, has fussed over writers’ work, to sporadic expressions of gratitude, for thirty years. He is The Sun’s night content production manager and former head of its copy desk. He also teaches editing at Loyola University Maryland. A former president of the American Copy Editors Society, a native of Kentucky, a graduate of Michigan State and Syracuse, and a moderate prescriptivist, he writes about language, journalism, and arbitrarily chosen topics. If you are inspired by a spirit of contradiction, comment on the posts or write to him at
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