Origin of English: some winter words

DSCN1523_zps0253c615Halloween has come and gone. Christmas decorations festively decorate the stores while politically the War on Christmas ramps up its intensity. All of this means that winter is coming. With this in mind, let’s explore the etymology of some winter words. I would suggest that this exploration is improved while sitting in front of a nice fire with a cup of hot chocolate.


The modern English word “winter” comes from the Old English “winter” whose plural is “wintru.” Going back farther in time, the origin of “winter” can be found in the Proto-Germanic “*wintruz” meaning “the wet season” which was derived from the Proto-Indo-European “*wend-” whose root “wed-” meaning “water, wet.”

There are some etymologists who feel that “winter” is based on the Proto-Indo-European “*wind-” meaning “white.” Winter is, following this line of reasoning, the white season.

Anglo-Saxons, by the way, counted years in terms of winters.


In some parts of the world, winter is associated with snow. The modern English word “snow” comes from the Old English “snaw” which not only meant “snow,” but was also used for “snowfall and snowstorm.” The Old English “snaw” evolved from the Proto-Germanic “*snaiwaz” which came from the Proto-Indo-European root “*sniegwh-”.

In American English, the concept of “snowbird” first appeared in 1923 as a way of describing northerners who went into the South to work during the winter months. In more recent years, the word has been used to describe a semi-nomadic pattern for retirees who spend the summers in the north and the winters in warmer climates.

In 1952, Americans added the word “snow tire” to their vocabulary.

While American Indians first invented snowshoes a long time prior to the European invasion, the word “snowshoe” is first recorded in English in the 1670s.

The word “snowmobile” first entered into English in 1931 was used in reference to Admiral Byrd’s expedition.


Some of us live in areas where we not only have to deal with snow, but also slush. The word “slush” in reference to “melting snow, snow and water” appears to have come into English from a Scandinavian source, perhaps from the Norwegian and Swedish “slask” or the obsolete Danish “slus” which means “sleet.” The word “slush” first appeared in the 1640s.

Some etymologists feel that the word “slush” may have originated in imitation of the sound of splashing.

The concept of “slush fund,” by the way, does not come from the snowy version of slush, but rather from a nautical concept: slush refers to grease that is the by-product of cooking in a ship’s galley. A slush fund, therefore, is based on the allusion of greasing someone’s palm with money.


For those of us who live in the Northern Rocky Mountains, the noun “avalanche” is a part of our winter vocabulary. The word “avalanche” came into English in 1763 from the French “avalanche” which was borrowed from the Romansch “avalantze” meaning “descent.” The Romansch may have been influenced by the Old French verb “avaler” meaning “to descend, go down.”

Romansch is a Romance language which is spoken in the Swiss Alps. The people in this area, like those of us living in the Rockies of North America, are familiar with snow sliding down the mountainside. […]

(From Daily Kos, Ojibwa, 8.11.2014)

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