This past week, a few words “blew up” in New England: blizzard, concerning the storm that pounded some parts of the region while only glancing at others, and deflate, due to the allegedly deflated footballs used by the Patriots in their win over the Colts en route to the Super Bowl. Let’s see what their etymologies have to say.
Weather forecasts and etymology have much in common: uncertainty. Perhaps no better word illustrates this commonality than blizzard. Many sources play it safe and note the word’s origin as unknown or obscure. Others have taken more risks, like Eric Partridge, who’ve connected the word to blaze, thinned to blizz, a kind of rainstorm, with “the hiss of rain being likened to that of a blazing fire.” While blaze seems dubious, Eric Partridge is right to highlight the importance of sound to this word, as we will see.
According to The Oxford English Dictionary, the earliest record of the word is in 1829, where it referred to a “violent blow,” much like a punch. Davy Crockett gets a citation in 1834; I recommend you avoid toasting him at dinner. Especially in the American West, the word was also used of gunshots and arguments. The year 1859 marks evidence for blizzard‘s application to snowstorms, while the legendary winter in 1880-1881 in the American Upper Midwest appears to have generalized the word’s usage.
Sonically, blizzard is a very effective word. The initial, phonesthemic bl– evokes the force of blast, blow or bluster, while its z‘s suggest speed. Anatoly Liberman is never one to underestimate such sound symbolism, so he puts up for such an imitative effect of blizz in British rural speech before landing in America. Blizz was then coupled with the productive suffix –ard, as we see in words like drunkard and in my post on bastard.
A blizzard may evoke the force of a blow, but deflation, another word much on the New England mind, is etymologically related to it. There’s record of inflation as far back as 1340, but its opposite doesn’t hit the scene until 1891. The word appears not in reference to footballs, but to a Mr. Percival Spencer’s thrilling hot-air ballon at the Naval Exhibition in London.
Hot air indeed: Both inflation and deflation have gas. Inflation originally referred to as much, naming the condition of being distended with air. At root is the Latin flāre (participial form, flātus), “to blow.” This root really ballooned in the English language. You don’t want to conflate the soufflé with flatulence. A blast of flavor can cure the blasé. While these sentences don’t really hold together well meaning-wise, the italicized word’s connection to the Proto-Indo-European root *bhle– does. For, via flāre, they are ultimately reconstructed from *bhle, “to blow.”
Now, this Deflategate business may also be a bunch of hot air, but football teams might heed the etymological advice of *bhle-. This root may be a variant of *bhel-, which swelled Indo-European languages with its cognates, including some words important to the sport, making deflated balls are one path to the Super Bowl.