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.



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