Often it is said that “Eskimos” have fifty, or a hundred, or hundreds, of words for snow. I had vaguely picked up that this was discredited … although it turns out that only the “strong version” of this is debunked.
A recent tweet by Peter Reason asked:
<blockquote class=”twitter-tweet” data-lang=”en”><p lang=”en” dir=”ltr”>.<a href=”https://twitter.com/RobGMacfarlane?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw”>@RobGMacfarlane</a> and others, is there a word for that lovely soft sound the rain makes as it falls on vegetation? Not really a patter, not a hiss, not really a murmur. Or do words fail us here?</p>— Peter Reason (@peterreason) <a href=”https://twitter.com/peterreason/status/1023490831821561859?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw”>July 29, 2018</a></blockquote>
The twitter exchange that followed didn’t establish an English word, but it did lead me to this Irish Times letter from 2006:
A chara, – Although I enjoyed Frank McNally’s discussion of the Irish language and rainfall (An Irishman’s Diary, May 25th), I feel he seriously underestimates the accuracy with which Irish can reflect “meteorological reality”. He mentions that Eskimos may have up to 49 different words for snow and feels that the Irish should have accumulated a similar number of words or expressions describing rain from “centuries of sodden experience”.
A perusal of Ó Dónaill’s Foclóir Gaeilge-Béarla reveals that we Irish have no shortage of expressions when it comes to describing precipitation. Rain may simply be described as “báisteach” or “fearthainn” but the story does not end there. The words “ceobhrán” and “brádán”, of course, describe drizzle or misty rain and one might also say: “Tá sé ag draonán báistí” The expression “tá sé ag dríodarnach báistí”, although not contained in Ó Dónaill’s dictionary, also describes this type of light rain. “Ceathanna”, “múrtha” or “scrabhanna báistí” describe showers of rain while “aimsir cheathach” or “aimsir spairniúil” describes showery weather. The word “craobhmhúr” is also useful in describing scattered rain or a light shower.
“Breacbháisteach” describes occasional rain (presumably of the type that causes difficulties with windscreen wipers) while rain blown on the wind (of the type that gets your trousers wet no matter which way you point your umbrella) might be described by “seadbháisteach” and, come to think of it, “seadbhraonta” might also cause problems for those wipers.
Unfortunately, the type of rain described by “spréachbhraon fearthainne” (a sprinkle of rain) was not that experienced by most of the country during the past month and the following may be utilised instead to describe this heavy, torrential rain: “batharnach”, “clagairt”, “clagarnach”, “dallcairt”, “forlacht”, “gleidearnach”, “stealladh”, “tuile” or “tabhairt mhaith báistí”.
Or why not “péatar”, “liagarnach”, “ragáille or “bús báistí”? In Munster Irish “ag cur foirc agus sceana” corresponds to “raining cats and dogs”, while in Connemara this might be expressed as “ag cur sceana gréasaí”. “Ag cur balc báistí” might also be heard in Ulster. “Ag cáitheadh báistí”, “tuile liag”, “caidhleadh”, “clascairt” or “léidearnach báistí” would also useful here. It may in fact be the case that we more than match those Eskimos and their snow
Finally, although Ó Dónaill translates “báisteach leatromach” as “local rain” this is almost certainly the kind of rain “meant for the guy beside you at a football match but deflected on to you by his golf umbrella”.- Is mise,
BREANDÁN Ó CRÓINÍN, Roinn na Gaeilge, Coláiste Mhuire gan Smál, Ollscoil Luimnigh.