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The Grizzly of the Plains

Laundresses in Bismarck in December 1874 found themselves in a cost-price squeeze, as they were being charged fifty cents per barrel to have water hauled up from the Missouri River. As reported by the Tribune,

'Tempering the wind to the shorn lamb' was the way the Bismarck washerwomen put it when Missouri River water advanced to fifty cents a barrel, and the next day’s blizzard piled a big snow drift near her back door.

Two things about this extract are notable. First, the phrase, “tempering the wind to the shorn lamb.” This captures a common usage of the nineteenth century as to the inscrutable mercies of the Almighty. The proverbial reference is to Psalm 6:

O Lord, give me strength and crush me not. Send not forth the fury of thy tempest against so weak a vessel. Temper the wind to the shorn lamb.

Given the meteorological cast of the current winter, I have committed that bit of Psalm 6 to memory. Which circumstance brings me to the second notable usage by the Tribune in 1874, the word blizzard—rendered in italics, indicating there is something hinky about the term. Was “blizzard” not a common usage?

Considering the question, I thought first of the Bible of Great Plains history, The Great Plains (1931), by Walter Prescott Webb, who famously adjudged the blizzard to be the meteorological “grizzly of the plains.” As a Texan with no life experience in the north, and to my knowledge, little travel there, how would he know?

Webb cites back to the work, then current, by a linguistic scholar named Allen Read. Read, in articles published in 1928 and 1930, establishes the first known use of the term “blizzard” in reference to a winter storm, by a newspaper editor named O. C. Bates in Estherville, Iowa. This was on April 23, 1870.

Webb, writing from Texas, also turns to the readily available writings of Bismarck’s Clement Augustus Lounsberry, who describes the northern blizzard as “a mad, rushing combination of wind and snow which neither man nor beast could face. The snow found its way through every crack and crevice. Barns and stacks were literally covered by drifting snow and, when the storm was over, cattle fed from the tops of the stacks.”

Lounsberry goes on to recount the story, no doubt picked up from folk transmission, of tying a rope from the house to the barn so as not to lose one’s way, which no doubt was authentic, but which also thereafter became obligatory for every local history in every county on the northern plains.

So, we have the debut of a colorful new term for a winter storm in Iowa in 1870, and its appearance in Bismarck in 1875, with typography indicating the word is still new or dubious.

Which it was. A compiled chronicle of newspaper usage in the 1870s charts the regional and international dissemination of “blizzard” and its gradual public acceptance. Through the mid-1870s, the word generally is enclosed in quotation marks, what we call today “scare quotes,” indicating editors are introducing the public to a novel term. In 1875 the word reaches Kansas, with an editor in Valley Falls noting “blizzard” as “the newest word in the language.”

By the late 1870s “blizzard” was into the vernacular, but its origins were unknown. I believe I can shed light on the question, and will do so in coming weeks. Here’s a teaser: the answer involves baseball.

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