Blizzard is probably the most used word to indicate a violent snowstorm. Despite its popularity the etymology of the term is quite unclear. Some well-known sources hint at its onomatopoeic sound as its possible origin. Can anyone offer a reliable story behind this term or just confirm its 'obscure' origin?

Blizzard: (etymonline)

  • strong, sustained snowstorm," 1859, origin obscure (perhaps somehow connected with blaze (n.1)); it came into general use in the U.S. in this sense the hard winter 1880-81. OED says it probably is "more or less onomatopœic," and adds "there is nothing to indicate a French origin."

Blizzard: (Oxford University Press):

  • In British rural speech, there existed a sound imitative complex blizz expressing the idea of great quickness. When the suffix -ard was added to it, the new word began to denote all kinds of things having an immediate effect on its victim, from “a gunshot” to “an intoxicating drink.”

    Most records are from American English. In 1870, in Iowa, a violent snowstorm was called a blizzard. Storms and hurricanes travel fast. Today blizzard is an established part of the vocabulary of English. What else do we not know about its history? -

  • Having lived in the US Midwest for 40 years I've lived through a number of blizzards (though fewer and fewer recently). The origin of the word is occasionally discussed in newspaper weather columns, and it's always come back to mid-1800s Iowa, from whose forehead it seems to have magically sprung. – Hot Licks Jan 27 '15 at 13:25
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    Though blizzard doesn't appear in this list of simplex words with the BL- assonance (since blizzard isn't a simplex word), note that the meaning of blizzard is coherent with all three senses of the BL- assonance class: Excess/Too Much (obviously), Color/Eye (think white-out), and Contained Fluid (again obviously, though not until it starts to melt). – John Lawler Jan 27 '15 at 15:46
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    It's not onomatopoeia. Onomatopoeia is words that resemble the sound they refer too, like "swish" or "boom". It's a very small and unimportant phenomenon, since how often do we discuss sounds? There is an aural component to blizzards -- the wind makes a noise -- but it's the visual, tactile, white, wet, blinding, blinking excess that this refers to. It's phonosemantic, not onomatopoeic. See the paper this chart came from, or explain the KL- chart as a coincidence. – John Lawler Jan 27 '15 at 16:06
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    @JohnLawler - thanks for the interesting paper! – user66974 Jan 27 '15 at 16:10
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    Really astonishing that the origin of a word that isn't older than about 150 years is obscure. By the way, I can't see or hear any sound imitation in the word blizzard. Perhaps it was shortened from a paraphrase, something like "a snow storm that blasts hard and long". – rogermue Feb 1 '15 at 7:21
up vote 9 down vote accepted
+100

My original response to this question is so long that I was asked to convert it into a blog post. That answer has four main sections.

The first section looks at nineteenth-century American discussions of the various slang meanings of blizzard—which include “a stunning blow,” “an unanswerable question or argument,” and “a violent and destructive snow-storm”—and their possible origin. The second section reviews analyses of blizzard by British writers between 1888 and 1921, with a particular focus on its arguable connection to Midlands dialect words such as blizzer, blizzom, and blizzy. The third section notes attempts by more-recent etymologists to identify the roots of the word (in French, German, Anglo-Saxon, or elsewhere) and to pinpoint where the snowstorm meaning of blizzard originated. On all of these points, no clear scholarly consensus emerges.

Finally, in the fourth section of my answer/blog post, I look at occurrences of blizzard in publications dated between 1834 and 1870 (the date of the first authenticated newspaper use of the word to refer to a snowstorm). Of the 34 unique instances of blizzard that I cite in that section, 12 refer to a blast or volley from one or more firearms or cannons, 8 refer to verbal blasts, 7 to a heavy or painful physical blow not involving a firearm, 3 to a literal or figurative attack that is not otherwise identified, 2 to a mild oath, 1 to a blazing fire, and 1 to a shot of liquor. Especially interesting is the emergence during the U.S. Civil War period of blizzard in the sense of a volley or fusillade of bullets, which provides a more satisfying immediate source meaning of the word lading up to the fierce snowstorm meaning than do the earlier blazing fire and stunning blow meanings.

The origin of blizzard in the sense of snowstorm remains somewhat mysterious, but the evidence of U.S. usage prior to 1870 suggests that the word had appeared in newspapers across the nation and that it had multiple active meanings as a slang term in 1870. Under the circumstances, the notion that blizzard in the sense of snowstorm may simply have been some sort of onomatopoeic invention of an Iowa newspaperman—and only coincidentally identical to the slang word blizzard as used in other contemporaneous senses—seems quite far-fetched.

  • The original certainly was "quite long". It was an "active" post when I started reading it - but before I finished, the screen auto-updated itself and I found I was reading a deleted post! :) – FumbleFingers Feb 20 '15 at 19:16
  • @FumbleFingers: Yes, it's been a learning experience for me to see the effects of my inclination toward completeness. Like perfectionism, that inclination can be seriously counterproductive (to put it mildly). In future, I'll try to do a better job of reining in my tendencies in that direction. – Sven Yargs Feb 20 '15 at 19:21
  • Serendipity, or secret connection?: merriam-webster.com/blog/one-more-problem-with-blizzards.htm – Hellion Feb 25 '15 at 18:18
  • @Hellion: Thanks for the link. That blog post is actually a light rewrite of the entry for blizzard in Webster's Word Histories (1989). In fact, part of what inspired me to detail as many relevant instances of the use of blizzard in the period between 1835 and 1870 was my disagreement with the tendency of the assertion (using the Webster's Word Histories wording here) that "The earlier uses appear to have been short-lived or local; the gun blast sense overlaps the snowstorm sense in time, but is attested only from other parts of the country.” ... – Sven Yargs Feb 25 '15 at 19:24
  • ...As I pointed out, the firearm/cannon blast/fusillade meaning occurs in newspaper stories published between 1835 and 1863 in Louisiana, Maryland, Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, and Vermont, as well as in three books. Blizzard was also used in other senses in newspaper articles published in California, Georgia, Indiana, Kansas, Louisiana, Missouri, Nebraska, New York, Virginia, West Virginia, and elsewhere. Given the great commingling of people from older settled states westward after the Civil War, I think that Webster’s “short-lived or local” characterization is inaccurate. ... – Sven Yargs Feb 25 '15 at 19:24

I found an interesting article (A Blizzard of Etymology) which traces the sentence “At last a mighty blizz of rain” to 1770. Sometime thereafter, the word blizard was apparently applied to severe snowstorms.

The author credits an Iowa newspaper with changing the spelling to blizzard:

A week later, on April 30, 1870, the Vindicator spelled 'blizzard' with a double 'z.'

It isn't hard to understand why the word blizzard might have been coined or at least popularized in the Midwest, especially in the more arid, treeless Great Plains. I grew up in rural South Dakota and recall blizzards that buried people's homes and barns. It didn't require a super heavy snowfall; the wind simply piled whatever snow did fall into huge drifts. And during the blizzard, visibility might be severely limited, especially if you were desperately trying to shield your face from the biting cold.

Some blizzards were commemorated in booklets (e.g. "The Blizzard of '56"). The most famous blizzard in American history may have been the Schoolhouse Blizzard of 1888.

More background on the possible German origins:

Lyon County News, 2 March 1883:

"The word blizzard was first used in Marshall, Minnesota, by an American settler, now residing in Iowa. It was in the storm of 1873, at Charles H. Whitney's Hotel, and the man was Deacon Seth Knowles, who was a settler of Lyon county near this village. The Deacon was a fine German scholar, and while discussing the terrible storm raging without, one speaker said no word could express its severity, whereupon the deacon said: "It's a Blizzard."

"So the great storm of 1873 was locally known, and with recurring storms the term spread through the state. During late years it has been generally adopted for squalls in the eastern states, which as compared with a genuine blizzard are no more than zephyrs. The deacon knew what he was talking about and adapted the term to the terrors of the storm. A German witnessing one of these overpowering storms would say: "Der Sturm commit blitzartig,' which, translated into English, would be: 'The storm comes lightning-like.'

The translation from blitzartig to blizzard is natural and easy, while no word could better describe the oncoming snow and wind storm, and certainly there is no English word to fill the bill. The newness if the term and its pronunciation led the deacon to step to the counter of the hotel and write the word for the benefit of his friends."

Somewhere along the line I read that "blizzard" was derived from the German "blitz," which is a sudden and drastic onslaught of something. That pretty well describes what a blizzard is.

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