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The Northern Blizzards

In 1997 an English scholar published a paper on the origins and use of the word, “blizzard,” and concluded, “The etymology of the word is still speculative.” Well, no, I don’t think it is. In a previous essay, I started up the road toward the origins and dissemination of the term. And I hinted it might have something to do with baseball.

To begin with, although 1870 is taken as the debut date for the word “blizzard,” it was, in fact, an old word. Blizzard was a common surname in both Britain and America, but more to the point, it was deployed as both a noun and a verb with forceful meaning. Blizzard as a noun meant a blow or strike. As a verb it meant to deliver such a blow.

The word came into fairly common use during the Bleeding Kansas controversy over slavery and the years of the Civil War, showing up in various Kansas newspapers during the 1860s, but it was in accepted use across the country. A blizzard might be a blow, a shot, or a fusilade, or metaphorically, a verbal assault. It had scruffy, belligerent connotations.

Now return to 1870, when the editor of the Northern Vindicator of Estherville, Iowa--one O. C. Bates--made reference to the violent snowstorm of 14 March as a “blizzard.” Publications by the linguistic scholar Allen Read in 1928 and 1930 establish this linguistic introduction. From there various myths of origin take root.

The town of Estherville still today makes the origin of the word “blizzard” a point of pride and repeats some unsubstantiated stories of how editor Bates hit upon it. Subsequent scholars have argued for Germanic roots--”blitzen,” “blitzartig,” and so on--and even named certain German-speaking pioneers of Minnesota as originators.

All such discussion is entirely too creative. A blizzard is a winter storm that hits hard. This hearkens directly back to the earlier established English meaning of the word as a physical blow or assault. Editor Bates, it seems plain, deployed the word as a metaphor, and it stuck.

Now for the baseball connection. The summer after Bates applied the word blizzard to a winter storm is Estherville, we read this press report of 26 July 1870:

Estherville, Iowa, has a base ball club called the “Northern Blizzards.” They recently “blizzed” a Minnesota base ball club by a score of 42 to 18.

It is tempting to assume the baseball club was named after editor Bates’s usage, but there is no evidence of such connection. Rather, both Bates and the ballplayers appropriated the metaphor of a hard hit--the latter to indicate their prowess as batsmen on the ballfield.

Through the early 1870s the term “blizzard” appears more and more commonly across the prairie and plains states, generally enclosed in scare quotes. By the late 1870s the scare quotes drop; the usage has achieved vernacular acceptance.

In research on popular writing about blizzards, here is another trope that surfaces in press reports: Norwegian settlers behaving foolishly, going out into blizzards and coming to grief. When Ole Rolvaag, in Giants of the Earth, dispatches Per Hansa into a raging blizzard and leaves him to freeze to death in a strawstack, he writes from an ongoing narrative tradition. An Anglo-American narrative not complimentary to our Nordic neighbors and forebears.

Likewise, we have to wonder about commentators who insisted that “blizzard,” because it was a violent force, must have been German. Something to remember about newspapers as historical sources: they are the voice of the town-based Anglo-American majority.

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