We all know what a blizzard is, but we don’t know where the word came from. The National Weather Service nowadays refers to a blizzard event, which means “sustained wind or frequent gusts greater than or equal to 35 m.p.h.” accompanying “falling and/or blowing snow to frequently reduce visibility to less than 1/4th mile for three or more hours.” In the past, a blizzard meant fierce storms of wind and snow that lasted more like three days and three nights rather than three hours. If you have ever been out and about in a real blizzard, you already know what a “blizzard” means. Nonetheless, let’s explore the origins of the word.
First of all, blizzard is an American word, but the date and circumstances of its origin are obscure. Some experts believed the word originated in North Dakota, or that a Dakota newspaper was the first to use the expression, yet there is little evidence to support these notions.
Modern consensus holds that the term blizzard appeared in print in 1870 in the Estherville, Iowa, Northwest Vindicator newspaper, but in 1906, a newspaper story on this date reported that Caroline Wells of Iowa had used the word “blizzard” in referring to a raging storm of three day’s duration in the 1860s, maintaining that the word showed up in the Clay County, Iowa, newspaper in 1869.
Minnesota also laid claim to the word “blizzard,” stemming from massive snowstorms in Marshall, Minnesota in 1873. A church deacon named Seth Knowles said “it’s a blizzard,” drawing from his knowledge of German terminology. He believed that a German immigrant in the middle of a terrible winter storm would say: “Der Sturm kommit blitzartig,” which in English would be: “The storm comes lightning-like” – reminiscent of the World War II Nazi “blitzkrieg,” or “lightning war.”
Actually, “blizzard” had long been a wartime word, meaning a “general exchange of gunfire,” or to “blaze away” at an enemy, and Civil War-era newspapers used the term, as in “Give them a blizzard [of rifle-bullets or artillery-fire] right at their shins,” and then “let them have the bayonet.”
Whatever is actually true about the early origins of the word, North Dakotans know what a real blizzard is, having done their share in giving meaning to the word through decades of frightfully severe experience.
Dakota Datebook written by Dr. Steve Hoffbeck, MSUM
“Origin of Word ‘Blizzard’ Traced,” Minneapolis Journal, April 13, 1906, p. 25.
“Glossary: Blizzard,” National Weather Service, https://w1.weather.gov/glossary/index.php?letter=b, accessed March 5, 2020.
“Dr. Samuel A. Green,” Minneapolis Tribune, February 23, 1894, p. 4; “Men and Beasts Frozen in Their Tracks,” Detroit Free Press, February 12, 1933, p. 8.
Ruth Hackett, “What’s in a Name,” Estherville [IA] News, December 11, 2008, http://www.esthervilledailynews.com/page/content.detail/id/502205/What-s-in-a-name-.html, accessed March 5, 2020.
“Whence Came Blizzard,” Valley City Weekly Times-Record, March 1, 1917, p. 2.
“The First Blizzard,” Minneapolis Tribune, February 28, 1936, p. 18.
“Blizzard,” Webster’s International Dictionary of the English Language, Vol. I (London: George Bell & Sons, 1907), p. 156.
“From General Rosecrans’s Army,” St. Paul Daily Press, February 12, 1863, p. 4; “The Battle at Somerset,” St. Paul Pioneer and Democrat, January 29, 1862, p. 2; “Great Battle of Stone River, Tennessee,” St. Paul Weekly Pioneer and Democrat, January 16, 1863, p. 1.