We have a winner

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William Lashner, Fatal Flaw, 2009:

What are we looking at when we are looking at love? Eskimos have like six billion different words for snow because they understand snow. Don’t ever try to snow an Eskimo. But for six billion different permutations of emotional attachment we have just one word. Why? Because we don’t have a clue.

I believe that this is the largest estimate of the Eskimo snow vocabulary ever published.

And it's embedded in a rhetorical move that turns the usual snowclone pattern inside out. The classical trope is "Just as the Eskimos have N words for snow, so the members of group X have M words for Y, which is thereby identified as a characteristic concern of group X". But Lashner adds another dimension: the Eskimos stereotypically have six billion words for snow because snow is stereotypically important to them and they stereotypically understand its billions of subtle variations. We allegedly have only one word for love, because even though it's critically important to us, and has billions of subtle variations, we don't understand it at all.

Lashner's lexico-statistical accuracy is weak, since at the end of any plausible tally, English will have more morphemes for "permutations of emotional attachment" than Yupik has for types of frozen precipitation. (A thesaurus gives more than 50 "synonyms" for love, and it's easy to think of dozens of terms left out of the list, even without going to lexicalized phrases.)

But these "words for X" tropes are never actually about word or morpheme counts. So give Lashner a round of applause for a clever and effective summary of his book's focus.

A few of our earlier posts on less clever versions of the words-for-snow template:

"Bleached conditionals", 10/21/2003
"Sasha Aikhenvald on Inuit snow words: A clarification", 1/30/2004
"Can Geoff Pullum rest on his laurels?", 8/13/2004
"Etymology as argument", 6/18/2005
"Snowclone blindness", 11/19/2005
"112 words for misunderstanding meaning", 2/5/2006
"More rhetorical abuse of the Eskimo lexicon", 6/25/2006
"Fashionably many Icelandic words for snow", 6/25/2010
"Meta-snowclones for gastro-geeks", 9/23/2010
"Tracking 'words for X' fluctuations", 3/22/2011
"'Words for snow' watch", 10/14/2011
"Don't you know it's not just the Eskimo", 11/14/2011
"The snowclone silly season opens", 12/5/2011
"Eskimos again, this time seeing the invisible", 12/12/2011
"Snow words in the comics", 1/13/2013
"Bad science reporting again: the Eskimos are back", 1/15/2013
"The mystery of the missing misconception", 1/30/2013



  1. Geoffrey K. Pullum said,

    March 11, 2014 @ 7:17 am

    "So give Lashner a round of applause for a clever and effective summary of his book's focus."

    Sorry, but no applause from me! If English had more words for types of intellectually lazy and linguistically ignorant pothering nitwit, I'd use them. The only mitigating factor I see in the quote is that Lashner puts the classic hedge word "like" right before the six billion figure. What it says to me is, "I'm not really being serious here, but you know, this is the sort of thing people say." And indeed it is. So I'll knock a small amount off his long sentence. But I still think all the people who spread this stupid trope should be locked up together in a prison cell (it would have to be a huge dormitory, actually), with a huge sign on the wall that says "APUT" (the single Proto-Eskimoan non-count root that actually means "snow").

  2. Michael Cargal said,

    March 11, 2014 @ 7:38 am

    In Siem Reap, Cambodia, this weekend, I read that Khmer people have more than 100 words for rice.

  3. Ginger Yellow said,

    March 11, 2014 @ 7:45 am

    But for six billion different permutations of emotional attachment we have just one word.

    I love the cluelessness of this argument, but I'm not in love with it.

  4. Richard said,

    March 11, 2014 @ 8:14 am

    GKP: But he's talking 'bout love! We all (yes, universal claim) turn into idiots when we're trying to write a cutesy love quip, whether serious or for cheap jokes. Have you ever gone back and READ stuff you wrote a week later? Ouch!

    If ever there was a time for stupid tropes, this was it!

  5. mike said,

    March 11, 2014 @ 8:26 am

    You guys need a Like button for entries and for comments. I totally would be liking all of these comments today.

  6. D-AW said,

    March 11, 2014 @ 9:52 am

    This classic belongs in the links list:

    "The miserable French language and its inadequacies"

    "Now consider love. Aimer is not a word for "love"; it is completely vague between loving and liking; you use it both for the way you are devoted to your spouse and the way you prefer to have your coffee. How do you really feel about me? Je t'aime. How's your fish? Je l'aime. Lover, haddock, whatever; it's all the same. These people do not have a word for love."

  7. ryan said,

    March 11, 2014 @ 11:26 am

    Dr. Liberman, your analysis is concise and entertaining as always. But the comments like the ones on this post really put me off from visiting this blog more often. They're like those who complained about the unrealistic physics in Gravity. Man, that Alfonso Cuarón must be a terrible director, since he sacrificed technical accuracy for the sake of good filmmaking. What an intellectually lazy and scientifically ignorant pothering nitwit he must be.

    All the condescension leaves a bad taste in my mouth.

  8. D.O. said,

    March 11, 2014 @ 11:55 am

    FWIW, 6 billion permutations is approximately the number of permutations of 13 objects. If a romantic comedy has at least 13 distinct tropes they can film more then 6 bil of them. It would be a little weird to start with the wedding and end with bridegroom having cold feet at the last moment, but it may still be doable.

  9. Y said,

    March 11, 2014 @ 12:22 pm

    Note that the Eskimos have 100 words for cold feet.

  10. cs said,

    March 11, 2014 @ 12:29 pm

    Huh, I was expecting the book to be some kind of self-help book about finding love or something, but apparently it's a novel with lawyers and a murder mystery.

  11. Milan said,

    March 11, 2014 @ 2:36 pm

    of course I mean 2.4*10^1131 permutations…

  12. Toma said,

    March 11, 2014 @ 3:23 pm

    Oh, yeah, I love novels with lawyers and a murder mystery… all 6 billion of them.

    [(myl) William Lashner is prolific, but so far he's only written a dozen or so. I guess you could argue that this is enough training material to prime an algorithm to write the other 5,999,999,988.

    Seriously, if you like this sort of thing, this is the sort of thing you'll like.]

  13. Bill Burns said,

    March 11, 2014 @ 4:24 pm

    William Lashner is just a piker! In this short story written in 1953, Arthur C. Clarke described how Tibetan monks had 9 billion names for God:


  14. Jerry Friedman said,

    March 11, 2014 @ 4:46 pm

    Six billion? That means most of us each have our own unique Eskimo word for snow? I hope I'm not one of the billion or so who are left out.

  15. Chris C. said,

    March 11, 2014 @ 4:47 pm

    @Y — Hell, even I have 100 words for cold feet, if we count noun phrases as words. Most of them include some variation of "fucking".

  16. Jay Lake said,

    March 12, 2014 @ 5:25 am

    I would take "six billion" as a cue for sarcasm, or possibly irony. I'm not sure which, I'm tired and in the hospital right now.

    [(myl) Probably both, given the nature of Lashner's narrator, Victor Carl, and the use of snow as a verb in the next phrase. Victor makes his living as a criminal lawyer by finding ever-larger numbers of ways to "deceive or win over with plausible words", although he's characteristically a sucker for implausible women.]

  17. Dan T. said,

    March 12, 2014 @ 12:32 pm

    @Ryan: But note, ironically, that the "put-me-off-worthy" comments thread was led off by Mr. "Comments are closed", who can't stand having the rabble sully his own articles.

  18. PandaMomentum said,

    March 12, 2014 @ 1:51 pm

    You know what English has a lot of words for (esp. Scots vernacular)? Damp. Mist. Drizzle. Spitting. Rain. Showers. Storms. Downpour. Coming down. Torrents. Buckets. Cats and Dogs. Plowtery, dreep, dribble, dreich, drookit, smirr.

    And dirt. Land, ground, clods, mud, soil, earth, sand, clay, marl, silt, compost, humus, and great tilth words like frangipan, chernozemic, and ortstein (one could write a book: http://sis.agr.gc.ca/cansis/taxa/cssc3/index.html )

    That's what we really think about. Rain and dirt, like any good farmer.

  19. XTC283 said,

    March 13, 2014 @ 6:59 am

    After PandaMomentum, English also has hundreds (millions? billions?) of words for "homosexual." Does this speak to our preoccupation with sex, sexuality and sexual orientation in the same way that Eskimos are preoccupied with snow?

  20. Adam Funk said,

    March 14, 2014 @ 4:54 am

    To be fair to the author, it's a work of fiction, isn't it? If I were writing fiction, I might well have a character, even the narrator, say something about "words for snow" because I know better; and I'd be poking fun at the character.

    BTW, I highly recommend The Great Eskimo Vocabulary Hoax and Other Irreverent Essays on the Study of Language (even if you don't like GKP's attitude now, that book doesn't reflect it).

  21. Paul said,

    March 18, 2014 @ 10:38 am

    I suppose I've always had it backwards. I had always heard that Eskimos didn't have a word for snow because it was such a part of their everyday life, so engrained and inherent that they didn't feel the need for a specific word to describe it. Now I'm wondering what I was thinking of.

  22. hbuutr said,

    March 18, 2014 @ 11:16 am

    To be fair to the author, it's a work of fiction, isn't it? If I were writing fiction, I might well have a character, even the narrator, say something about "words for snow" because I know better; and I'd be poking fun at the character.

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