Book review: Fifty Words for Snow, by Nancy Campbell

Unable to travel somewhere snowy this winter? Then sign up for Nancy Campbell’s virtual tour of the world’s chilliest places

Nancy Campbell PIC: Annie Schlechter
Nancy Campbell PIC: Annie Schlechter

In the winter of 2010, Nancy Campbell was named writer in residence at Upernavik Museum in Greenland, the most northerly museum in the world, and since then she has spent a decade writing, as she puts it, "on the changing language and landscape of the Arctic." In 2016 her poetry collection Disko Bay, inspired by the landscape and culture of Greenland, was shortlisted for the Forward Prize for Best First Collection, and in 2018 her collection of essays A Library of Ice, longlisted for the Rathbones Folio Prize, looked at the titular subject from a myriad of different angles: as a store of climatic data; as a vital ingredient in sports like curling and ice skating; as a medium in which the bodies of unfortunate travellers can be preserved for thousands of years.

Now, she has shifted her attention from ice to snow, and - as its title suggests - in Fifty Words for Snow she sets out to examine 50 snow words, taken from snowy and sometimes not-so-snowy places all around the globe, supplying miniature essays on each.

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In her introduction, she describes the book as "a journey to discover snow in cultures around the world through different languages," and notes how specific snow terms can often be rich store-houses of ancient knowledge for anyone who cares to examine them properly. "I spoke to those who worked with snow," she writes, "from Inuit Hunters to Scottish Hill Farmers, and noticed that even their traditional knowledge was often enshrined in highly differentiated vocabularies."

Fifty Words For Snow, by Nancy Campbell

There are, then, some highly specific terms for snow in this book, and each one provides a jumping-off point for Campbell's pithy, clear-eyed essays. In Icelandic, the wonderfully onomatopoeic term hundslappadrífa means "snowflakes as big as a dog's paw"; in Latvian, cīruļputenis - meaning literally "a blizzard of skylarks" - refers to the magical sensation of being caught in a surprise springtime snow flurry. In Ojibwemowin, meanwhile, the language of the Anishinaabeg people, who traditionally lived around Lake Superior, on the border between present day USA and Canada, the terms Onaabani Giizis and Popogami Giizis refer to two periods in late spring when a thin crust forms on top of lying snow, making life difficult for travellers. The former term means "Hard Crust on the Snow Moon" while the latter means "Broken Snowshoe Moon" - a term no doubt born of painful experience.

For pinpoint accuracy, however, there's no beating the word ttutqiksribvik - a term common to the Inupiaq, Kinikmui and Wales dialects of western Alaska, which translates as [deep breath]: "A place with a layer of snow on shore-fast ice, near an ice pressure ridge, where a boat and gear can be stored upside down, and the sides of the boat banked with snow to protect gear under the boat. The bow of the boat is anchored to a piece of ice." The packing of so much information into a single word speaks both of a profoundly strong connection to the natural world, and also of the practical need, in a harsh, cold climate, to express complex ideas as succinctly as possible.

A pedant might point out that not all of the words in Fifty Words For Snow are technically words for snow: "zud" is Mongolian word for a severe winter; "pana" is the Inuktitut word for the knife used in igloo building; and "jäätee," the Estonian word for an ice road, feels a little like a refugee from Campbell's previous book.

These are only minor and intermittent distractions, however. The essays in Fifty Words For Snow are like so many magical portals, offering fleeting but fascinating glimpses into unfamiliar worlds. Campbell points out that she completed this book during lockdown, and as such it allowed her to journey around the world without leaving her home. Fans of low-cost travel currently unable to hop on a plane to someplace snowy are encouraged to sign up for her very reasonably-priced virtual tour.

Fifty Words for Snow, by Nancy Campbell, Elliott & Thompson, 218pp, £12.99

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