In previous “International Swear Words” entries, I encouraged you to build your lexicon of profanity via a multitude of languages and eras. Many people in the northeast United States currently consider “snow” the dirtiest of words. (My heartfelt prayers for people who live in Massachusetts and other residents of the New England region. Holy snowmageddon, Batman!)
So I got to thinking–snow, dirty word. Snow, dirty word. No, I’m not going to instruct you in the fine art of cursing someone out Beantown style. Who allegedly has a multitude of words for describing snow? Arctic Indians, of course.
If people indigenous to Alaska, Canada, and Greenland (and the Aleutian Islands, and Russia’s Siberian doorstep) are blessed with numerous ways to identify ice-crystal precipitation, surely their languages offer a deluge of swear words.
It’s winter. It’s February. Also, that d@mn hedgehog supposedly saw his own shadow. We all could use a good laugh right about now. So put on an extra layer of wool socks or thermal leggings, and prepare to wrap your tongue around some arctic profanity. But first…
Notice I Didn’t Use the Phrase “Eskimo Style” in This Post’s Headline: There is a specific reason for that–many Canadian and Greenlandic Indians (but not necessarily Alaskan Indians) consider the word Eskimo a derogatory one. Allow me to clarify.
According to the Alaska Native Language Center (part of the University of Alaska Fairbanks website):
“Although the name ‘Eskimo’ is commonly used in Alaska to refer to all Inuit and Yupik people of the world, this name is considered derogatory in many other places because it was given by non-Inuit people and was said to mean ‘eater of raw meat.’ Linguists now believe that ‘Eskimo’ is derived from an Ojibwa word meaning ‘to net snowshoes.’ However, the people of Canada and Greenland prefer other names.”
I have no interest in offending any of you lovely readers, so I will refrain from using the “E” word too often. (I almost regret my decision to produce this particular entry in the “ISWTLAU” series, but it’s such a great fit with winter’s wintry weather.) And while we’re at it…
“Snow” May Not Be the Linguistic Smorgasbord You Think It Is: For many years, a lot of us (myself included) have swallowed whole a particular notion. Supposedly, people indigenous to arctic stretches of Alaska, Canada, and Greenland use so many different terms to describe snow that these words could fill a pocket-size dictionary.
But over the past 30 years, certain academics have made it their mission to debunk the existence of a linguistic avalanche regarding snowy Inuit/Yupik/Aleut words. Geoffrey Pullum’s 1991 essay collection, The Great Eskimo Snow Hoax and Other Irreverent Essays on the Study of Language, reports on this debate in the title essay.
Prior to Pullum’s compilation, a professor of anthropology named Laura Martin published an article in 1986 in the American Anthropologist. In it, she attempted to deconstruct the whole “Eskimos have many words for snow” theory that some claim goes all the way back to 1911.
I’m no academic, but I did find one piece of information in reference to Pullum’s entertaining essay that makes total sense. (Once again, a hat-tip to the University of Alaska Fairbanks. Pay it a virtual visit before winter meets its timely demise!)
“Pullum is not above overstating the case just a bit: ‘The truth is that the Eskimos do not have lots of different words for snow, and no one who knows anything about Eskimo has ever said they do.'”
Keeping in mind there are at least five distinct Arctic-Indian languages, here’s a seriously academic list of Eskimo words describing snow. And here is a satirical list of “snowy” Inuit words created by a clever dude named Phil James. I suggest you read the latter list first.
But remember–in English, snow is a four-letter word (especially right now, and especially in the northeast U.S.).
Arctic Indians Seem to Be Very Polite People (D@mmit!): Despite my best efforts, I had a tough time finding easily accessible, well-organized lists of Inuit, Yupik, or Aleut swear words. I suppose when you’re swaddled in cold weather most of the year, cursing aloud is a waste of breath. But all is not a total loss. (Now I’m wondering how many words the Inuits, Yupiks, and Aleuts have for “loss.”)
I did manage to source a hodgepodge of Greenlandic/Inuit swear words and some other random Yupik and Aleut quasi-profanity. FYI, Greenland is officially considered part of the Kingdom of Denmark. But the citizens of this island country are primarily Inuit, so it seems I’ve backed into a sliver of Eskimo profanity.
Here’s the best I can offer you on a glacial day from the tundra-like hinterland known as New Jersey:
Nipangerit = Greenlandic Inuit for “shut up!”
Iteq = Greenlandic Inuit for “asshole”
Itialuit = Inuktitut/Inuit for “damn you!”
Tiaavuluk = Greenlandic Inuit for “damn” or “damn it”
Daqatulakan = Aleut for “stupid”
Qumli = Yupik for “asshole” (i.e., an annoying person)
Usuk = Inuktitut/Inuit for “penis” (Go ahead, make my arctic day by leaving the anticipated comment. I’m waiting…)
Iktsvarpok = Inuit for “To go outside and check if an expected visitor has arrived, over and over again.”
I’ve decided to interpret this last word as an Inuit definition of insanity. It does seem to parallel the mainstream/popular version of what insanity is considered to be these days. (Contrary to widespread belief, it’s doubtful this much-favored definition originated with Albert Einstein.)
Please don’t ask me how to utter these words. Just do the best you can with this pronunciation springboard. If nothing else, you’ll amuse yourself and your loved ones from now until spring.
If you happen to be of Arctic-Indian descent, please help me. Leave a comment regarding additional “Eskimo” (sorry!) swear or curse words in whatever Inuit, Yupik, or Aleut language you speak.
Okay, time to visualize snow as forests of azure and ice as morning dew on budding crocuses (until winter’s great thaw)…
Lori Shapiro is the owner of By All Writes LLC, a business-to-business (B2B) writing, editing, and research company in Marlton, New Jersey. She revels in shielding her clients from the pain of writing their own print or web marketing and educational copy. Please call Lori Shapiro at 856-810-9764 or email By All Writes LLC at firstname.lastname@example.org for a no-obligation project quote today!