We finally have snow!

For readers of this column on the mainland, that may not sound like a big deal. But down here in Kodiak, we haven’t had significant snowfall in, what seems like, a few years. And these past couple of weeks, we’ve received several inches, with more coming this week. And record low temperatures to boot.

Snow is the modern spelling of the Old English snaw, which, quite frankly, is a wonderful way to pronounce snow. Snaw. Even the Old English verb for snow, sniwan, yielded the past tense snew, which disappeared around the 17th century. 

Snaw and snew. Sounds like a couple of words in any Dr. Seuss book.

The word comes from the Proto-Germanic snaiwaz, from the Proto-Indo-European sniegwh, meaning snow. This root has produced some equally Seussian words: the Irish sneachd, the Welsh nyf, and the German schnee.

For part of southwestern Alaska, this snow has mixed with ash from Shishaldin Volcano, which sent an ash cloud more than 27,000 feet into the air this week. Causing some canceled flights and other aviation concerns, the volcano is expected to be active for the foreseeable future.

Like snow, ash comes from the Old English. Originally spelled aesce, from the Proto-Germanic askon, ash meant the powdery remains of fire. But the PIE root, as, means to burn or glow. The Spanish and Portuguese have a word — ascua — which means read-hot coal. And most of the English words from that root have the same burning connotation: ardent, arson, and even potassium.

In other languages, the connotation is more about drying up, which is similar to the English ash. For instance, the Latin aridus, the root of the English arid, means parched; the Greek azein means to dry up; and the Armenian azazem means “I dry up.” 

Which is probably what Gov. Dunleavy was thinking during his holiday address to the state. As he was eating that cookie and trying to talk at the same time, I could see in his eyes that he was begging for a glass of milk to wash it down.

Speaking of milk, one story that flew under the radar this week is the announcement that Borden Dairy, the second largest milk company in the US, is filing bankruptcy. Dean Foods, the largest milk company, filed for bankruptcy a few weeks ago. Many analysts are blaming the private equity funds that took over these companies a few years ago. 

But more than 2,700 dairy farms have gone out of business since 2018. Farm debt is at record highs, even with all of the government bailouts they’ve received under Trump’s administration.

The word milk derives from the Old English meoluc, from the Proto-Germanic meluk.

While we identify milk as that white fluid, the PIE root, melg-, indicates that word was more associated with the action of milking; it means to wipe or rub, as in the motion of milking an animal.

This makes sense in the theatre world, where we try to milk the audience for more laughs or applause than what we probably deserve, a notion dating to 1939. It was probably borrowed from the 16th century figurative sense where the word milk was used to describe the act of exploiting another person for profit. As in, perhaps, “Private equity groups are milking milk companies.”

The phrase “crying over spilled milk” was coined in 1836 by Thomas Haliburton, a Canadian novelist, and of course we have Shakespeare’s “full of the milk of human kindness,” a quote from Lady MacBeth’s speech in which she insults her husband, calling him weak.

On a personal note, I will be taking some time away from the Week in Words column as we begin this new year and new decade. I have signed a contract with a publisher to write a book and, well, I guess I better write it. It’s an academic study of the history of epigraphs (you know, those pithy quotes writers place at the beginning of their books) in English literature and is due out later this year. 

So, unfortunately, I will have to focus my research and writing energy on completing that project, which will take me away from the column for a few months. But I plan to write an occasional column here or there if big news breaks. I mean, it’s an election year, so there will be plenty of rhetoric to analyze, for sure!

Thanks for your readership, for your emails, and for your word suggestions. I’ll be back soon!



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