Eskimo Words for Snow


Sastrugi Snow National Snow And Ice

Sastrugi, or snow dunes, like these have endless variety of shapes. Photo by National Snow and Ice Data Center

A friend called from Chicago to say he was heading to Michigan to cross-country ski and he wanted to know what the snow was like up here. I had to break the news that we were in the middle of a thaw, with the temperature in the 40s, and the trails were a mess.

"How would you describe the snow?” he asked.

“Kind of cruddy,” I said.

Which brings to mind the many Eskimo words for snow. That the Inuit can recite a seemingly endless list has been passed around as fact for more than a century, and I have to admit (because it’s documented, alas) that I once passed it around as casually as anyone. It makes a good story — the fur-clad people of the arctic reciting their hundreds of designations while eager ethnologists took notes. The trouble is, it’s not true.

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