As a child I remember being told that the Inuit had 117 words for snow, and almost as many different words for various colors of white. Just how many words the Inuit really have for different kinds of snow is a matter of some scientific controversy. But obviously, it would be important for survival for an Inuit to be highly sensitive to differences in snow.
Weather forecasters in Britain do not have 117 words for rain, but I have learned the usefulness of a few distinctions with which as an American I was not familiar.
But before embarking on a trans-oceanic vocabulary lesson, let me point out that British weather forecasters are among the best in the world. That is because Britain is probably one of the most challenging places in the world to forecast the weather – accurately anyway. The land mass of Great Britain is slightly smaller than the land mass of the state of Oregon. But it is buffeted by distinct weather systems from all four directions each competing to be number one.
The UK often gets weather crossing the Atlantic Ocean after it has visited the US and Canada. Depending on whether it is a hurricane that has travelled up the East Coast before turning east, or whether it has first travelled across the continent, it may arrive in Britain more subdued or more ferocious. Weather also arrives from continental Europe. If it is sweeping down from Siberia, it may be viciously cold. If it is sweeping up from southern Europe, it is often warmer. Then there is the Golf Stream. It doesn’t always arrive on the same trajectory, so it may bring more or less rain and temperatures may vary. The UK is a battleground of warm air from the tropics and cold air from the Arctic. Add a variable wind and the result is usually extremely volatile weather.
Which is why there are at least three qualitatively different kinds of rain. I was initially mystified by a prediction that “Showers would be followed by rain”, especially when it was paired with a prediction in a different part of the country that “Rain would be followed by showers.” Or even by “drizzle”. It all sounded like rain to me.
Technically, rain is the generic term of condensed water falling from the clouds, but in usual forecasting parlance, predictions of rain usually suggest it will go on for some time. A shower, on the other hand, is apt to be a one-off, not settling in for a long stay. It might be called a rain-storm if it is heavy enough. Then there is drizzle which consists of fine, mist-like droplets, also sometimes called mizzle, making the weather “mizzly.”
An incomplete list of other rain-related terms includes cloudburst, hail, condensation, dew, fog, mist, precipitation, and sleet. Hmmm: maybe British forecasters could compete with the Inuit’s snow list after all.
In case one is wondering whether to wear a rain coat in Britain, the default answer is Yes. Burberry rain coats are a famous British invention for a reason.