It was once a commonplace that the Inuit had 100 words for snow. After two weeks’ research into dialect words at William Gladstone’s beautiful Flintshire library, while storm after storm ravaged the country, I can attest that the British have created at least that many on the subject of rain. Here are five of the best.
1. Smirr (n)
This lovely term for extremely fine, misty rain was immortalised by the Caledonian poet George Campbell Hay in “The Smoky Smirr o Rain” (1948) and can still be heard from Scotland to Suffolk, where it is spelled (minus the Scots burr) as “smur”. In its lovely connotative mouth-feel it seems to combine “mist” with “smudge” and even “murk”, and may be related to the Dutch word for mist, “smoor”.
2. Letty (adj)
Letty weather (Somerset) is just enough rain to make outdoor work difficult. It’s wonderful for its precision but also for its etymology: it’s from the old word “let”, meaning “disallow”, linguistically preserved in the amber of the term “let and hindrance”. Common parlance once, as this colloquial rain-word shows, these days it is rarely used outside legal circles.
3. Cow-quaker (n)
A sudden and dramatic rainstorm in May, after the cattle had returned to the fields from their winter quarters, was once referred to as a “cow-quaker” – and it’s easy to imagine the poor Friesians, grown unused to the capricious British weather during their long months indoors, shivering and crowding together as a sharp spring storm blows over their pasture.
4. Plothering (v)
In the Midlands and northeast, heavy rain is still described as “plothering”, a surpassingly onomatopoeic word that describes the sound of fat drops hitting the ground quickly and in great numbers. Unlike many other regional and dialect terms for heavy rain, “plothering” has no sense of accompanying wind: these drops fall straight down.
5. Raining forks’tiyunsdown’ards (v)
This Lincolnshire term for extremely forceful precipitation provides a glimpse at Britain’s social divisions as well as its meteorology. The tines in question would have belonged to a hay- or dung fork, and create a vivid impression of a downpour, as viewed by a fenland farmer about to go outside and feel it stinging the back of his neck; by contrast, its more genteel south-eastern equivalent, “raining stair-rods”, conjures a Surrey housewife standing at the foot of a staircase with its rich Axminster runner and tidy brass rods, and handing her husband his umbrella as he leaves for the station.
Melissa Harrison is a nature writer and author of the novel ‘Clay’ (Bloomsbury)