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Linguists around the world right now are packing for a trip to Scotland to attend the 50th Anniversary Golden Jubilee meeting of the Linguistics Association of Great Britain here in Edinburgh (it starts on Sunday). And those listening to the BBC's Radio 4 this Friday morning may have been a little discomfited to hear the weather man, in his official capacity, use the adjective atrocious to describe the weather in Scotland over the past few days. Really! Adjective control is getting lax at Broadcasting House. The word choice should be interpreted, however, in a cultural context. Not to put too fine a point on it, a linguistic context of whingeing, moaning, snivelling, grumbling, and overstatement about the weather that probably goes back to the first settlement by Angles, Saxons, and Jutes. The fact is that no one whose experience has been limited to the British Isles has any idea what would be an appropriate meteorological use of the adjective atrocious.

Barbara and I just got back last night from a train trip to Oban, a small coastal town in the windy, rainy, northwest of Scotland (trains on time almost to the minute). We also took a day trip to the Isle of Mull (ferry system perfectly integrated with the bus times — a wondrous thing for anyone inured to California's hopelessly unintegrated public transportation chaos). Yes, it did rain. Every ten minutes, day and night. The "bright intervals" that feature so heavily in the most optimistic of British weather forecasts were generally only a few minutes at a time. So we wore head-to-toe waterproof gear that we basically took off only when in our hotel room, and the trip was a delight. That judgment is not in any way clouded by overindulgence in the excellent single malt whisky to which Oban lends its name (as it happened, we didn't do the distillery tour and never even sipped the product). The fact is that Scotland at sea level is always fairly temperate — there is nothing in the whole U.K. that could possibly be compared with the kinds of temperatures familiar to residents of the northern USA and Canada.

We walked everywhere, past dark stone walls, the brightly painted harborside houses of Tobermory, dripping green hedgerows, washed ripe blackberries for the picking, publicly accessible (and entirely unsupervised) disused castles covered with moss. We enjoyed spectacular seafood meals (the Waterfront Restaurant on Railway Quay in Oban is truly excellent), and walked home through the rain afterwards. It was wonderful. We were never cold. If this was atrocious, I'd like to experience a lot more atrocity.

Edinburgh is currently about the same: reasonable temperatures (even when Arctic southward air streams set in, Edinburgh gets temperatures no worse than a crisp October day in New England), and continuous rain. Rain on grey volcanic rocks and handsome Georgian architecture and a thousand-year-old castle, past which I will (after donning my waterproof raingear) walk to my office at the university. So don't be afraid to pack a long plastic raincoat and rainproof hat, and come to Edinburgh for the LAGB. You'll love it. It's atrocious.


  1. Paul said,

    September 4, 2009 @ 5:17 am

    If you wanted integrated transport systems, you're probably 20 years too late even in the UK. Thatcher's deregulation and privatisation schemes put paid to most of that. But I digress. Seeing your reference to the thousand-year-old castle reminded me that on my only visit to California I once followed directions to a "historic castle", only to find a house built in the 1920s. If Americans go over the top with how they use the word "historic", then surely we Brits can be allowed atrocious weather now and again :-) Now, on to how many words we have for rain…

  2. Kenny Easwaran said,

    September 4, 2009 @ 5:34 am

    Interesting – I think my tastes tend towards the opposite. I'm perfectly happy to bundle up for the cold, as long as I don't have to worry about getting wet.

  3. Stephen Jones said,

    September 4, 2009 @ 5:44 am

    If this was atrocious, I'd like to experience a lot more atrocity.

    You will, you will.

    The point about British weather is that it is so depressing. Scotland's particularly bad because there is so little sunlight, which explains the present epidemic of vitamin D deficiency (there is a theory that lack of sunlight also explains the astonishingly low life expectancy in Scotland).

    Of course ideas of good weather vary according to where you are. I expect Geoff's bizarre affection for Scottish weather comes from decades of living in California (the alternative explanation is of course vampire genes). To the Saudis good weather is when it's cold and rainy. You'll be looking out the window on the odd day it's clouded over and pissing it down, wondering why the hell you travelled thousand of miles for a repeat of what you can see most days in Manchester, and the Saudis will be saying "Great weather today sir, just like your country."

    Anyway off to Lanka for a few days on Thursday. Too much bloody rain, but at least the temperature is a pleasant 28 Celsius, day and night all year round.

  4. antoninus said,

    September 4, 2009 @ 5:57 am

    'Atrocious' I can live with, as I grew up in Scottish weather (and Glasgow's further north than Moscow). But BBC R4 have in recent months let 'refute' go all Humpty Dumpty (including their indirect reporting of the news). Prescriptivism has its problems, but this creeping usage – used by creeps and their lackies – erodes accountability. Bring back 'rebut', fast, and save the other one for matters of evidence.

  5. tom wootton said,

    September 4, 2009 @ 6:20 am

    This putting forward of opinion with the weather forecast is a relatively recent phenomenon and is most unwelcome and usually elicits an 'I'LL be the judge of that, thank you,' whenever I hear it.

    [Yes; I believe I mentioned this practice in an earlier post. —GKP]

    As that essence of Albion, the band Half Man Half Biscuit, put it in their litany of disgruntlement A Country Practice –

    'Opinionated weather forecasters telling me it's going to be a miserable day tomorrow. Miserable for who? I quite like a bit of drizzle so stick to the facts.'

  6. Picky said,

    September 4, 2009 @ 7:33 am

    Although the hundreds of people who have had to leave their flooded or threatened homes in Scotland may think the weather has been at least a little unpleasant.

  7. Ian Preston said,

    September 4, 2009 @ 7:45 am

    … ferry system perfectly integrated with the bus times — a wondrous thing …

    Not so. Having also taken a day trip from Oban to Mull only a month ago, my experience is that the integration of bus and ferry times at Craignure, which is indeed exquisite if you're heading to Tobermory, is not at all so if heading to Fionnphort (the only other destination) and thence, say, Iona. In fact, if you're travelling at a reasonable time, want to spend your time at the destination rather than the ferry terminal and not miss the last boat back to the mainland then the lack of integration more or less obliges you to book the whole trip as a considerably more expensive package. (My apologies if this is the one of the nerdiest observations of least general interest ever posted to Language Log but your raising of the matter reawakens the irkedness I felt at the time.) It's still a good trip though and I agree about the weather – pleasantly atrocious.

  8. Mark Liberman said,

    September 4, 2009 @ 7:51 am

    There may be a few readers who are not familiar with this little poem about Mull weather:

    It rained and rained and rained and rained,
    The average was well maintained;
    And when our fields were simply bogs,
    It started raining cats and dogs.

    After a drought of half an hour,
    There came a most refreshing shower;
    And then the queerest thing of all,
    A gentle rain began to fall.

    Next day 'twas pretty fairly dry,
    Save for a deluge from the sky.
    This wetted people to the skin,
    But after that the rain set in.

    We wondered what's the next we'd get,
    As sure as fate we got more wet.
    But soon we'll have a change again,
    And we shall have a drop of rain.

    Three different versions can be found here — no doubt there are more.

    One of the things that most struck me on a visit to Nova Scotia, 30-odd years ago, was that the locals strolled around in the rain without (what looked to me like) rain gear of any sort, giving no impression that they were concerned to hurry to get out of it, or in any other way to try to avoid getting wet. This reminded me of the attitude imposed by my army drill instructor, who insisted that most of us were unlikely to melt or rust; but I hadn't seen it before in civilians. I guess use makes master.

  9. Mark P said,

    September 4, 2009 @ 8:14 am

    I don't know what a "perfectly integrated" transportation system means to people outside the US, but in most places in the US, including virtually all smaller cities and towns, perfectly integrated means you can see the airliners when they fly over, the bus station has been turned into a convenience store, and most of the streets are paved.

  10. Barry Corrigan said,

    September 4, 2009 @ 8:17 am

    Stephen Jones:

    The lack of sunlight in Scotland is a bit of a myth. In fact Dundee gets more sunlight than london, and in general northerly parts of the UK clock up more hours of sunlight per annum than southerly parts. The reason is that in the summer the days are longer in the north, and tho this is balanced by shorter days in the winter, in the winter it tends to be cloudier on average so the balance comes out ahead.

    I have also not seen anybody walking about with rickets.

    Interestingly I work (in Glasgow) with someone from Mumbai who has lived here for a few years and now prefers the weather of Glasgow to that of london or india. Particularly when it comes to temperature.

    So scottish weather is not necessarily any more depressing than anywhere else in the UK. I would say it is less so.

  11. ø said,

    September 4, 2009 @ 9:22 am

    I'm with Geoff. I once spent 6 months in Edinburgh — from my point of view, one long slow moist green spring from February to August.

  12. Dionne said,

    September 4, 2009 @ 9:41 am

    Living in drought-stricken South Africa, we are always longing for rain. I think we should set up some sort of exchange programme – we'll send you some beautiful sunshine, and you send us your rain.

  13. Bloix said,

    September 4, 2009 @ 9:48 am

    There's a general pattern in casual usage to take words with strong and particularized meanings and to use them to convey no more than "pleasant/unpleasant" or "acceptable/unacceptable." Perhaps this starts as humorous exaggeration and then becomes ordinary usage. "Terrible," originally meaning terror-inspiring; "terrific," oriiginally having the same meaning; "wonderful," originally meaning something close to miraculous; "awful" and "awesome," both originally meaning awe-inspiring; "incredible," originally meaning not to be believed (an "incredible story" meant "a lie"); etc.

    This process occurs both in the US and the UK, but not always with the same words. So, in the UK (at least, in England), but not in the US, "brilliant" and means "fine, ok," and "lovely" means about the same. And in my experience, "atrocious" has followed a similiar tragectory. In the US, atrocious has slipped far from its moorings as the adjective form of "atrocity," but it still means something that's very, very bad, while in England "atrocious" seems to have drifted off to mean not much more than "unpleasant" or "substandard."

    Going the other way, in the US I've heard "ridiculous" among teenagers to mean "truly excellent," and never heard that usage in England. Although my experience of English teenagers is non-existent so perhaps it's common there as well.

  14. Bloix said,

    September 4, 2009 @ 10:04 am

    PS- note a good example in Ian Preston's comment, above: "the integration of bus and ferry times at Craignure, which is indeed exquisite if you're heading to Tobermory …"

    I don't think an American would use "exquisite" to refer to well-coordinated timetables, even in jest, although it's clear enough to Americans what's meant.

  15. Dan Lufkin said,

    September 4, 2009 @ 10:18 am

    In re atrocious weather — May it not be the case that Scots actually need a larger wet-weather vocabulary than dwellers in more arid climes? On Mull they probably have 150 words for drizzle. My grannie's people were from Tobermory (Gael. "big well") via Ontario and she liked it cloudy.

    Oban is truly a fine little city. Did you by any chance get to McTavish's Kitchen? It's a pub frequented by trawlermen and the impromptu singing is (used to be, anyway) hilarious, particularly if you understand Polish or German. We were in Oban in August once and the fire alarm went off at 2:00 a.m. in the hotel (Victoria?). We all trooped out into the garden. The manager then announced that it was a false alarm due to the terrible heat of the day (72° F, still in use back then). We all trooped back to the lounge bar where the manager poured us all a wee dram.

  16. Bloix said,

    September 4, 2009 @ 10:25 am

    "150 words for drizzle" – Oh noes!!

    I don't know anything about Scotland, but my fave English weather word is "fresh," meaning chilly, damp, and windy.

  17. Stephen Jones said,

    September 4, 2009 @ 10:46 am

    in the winter it tends to be cloudier on average so the balance comes out ahead.

    The balance is irrelevant. The point is that during the winter there is a shortage of sunlight, with the consequent well documented effects.

    I have also not seen anybody walking about with rickets.

    If they were walking around they wouldn't be suffering from vitamin D deficiency as they probably would just about get enough sun. It's when people stay in all the time because it's so dull and drizzly that the problem comes.

    Here are a couple of articles on Vitamin D deficiency in Scotland with appropriate excerpts:
    The “compelling” case that Scotland's poor health record could in part be laid at the door of widespread vitamin D insufficiency, as reported yesterday in The Times, has garnered support from across the medical world,

    Scotland receives 30-50% less ultraviolet radiation (UVB) from the sun than the rest of the UK due to its high latitude and persistent low cloud cover. Vitamin D levels are consistently found to be even lower in Scotland than the rest of the UK

    Indeed, Glasgow, with one of most cloudy climates receives a similar amount of UVB as Kiruna in Northern Sweden which is way above the Arctic Circle.

    Experts in Vitamin D now suggest that Scotland's poor health record is a direct consequence of Vitamin D deficiency particularly in childhood.

    Even being born in Scotland is enough to increase the risk of early death. Scots moving to England still have a higher risk of death than those who were born and raised in areas further south.(169)

    This strongly suggests that some factor in early life may influence ones longevity. Vitamin D levels during pregnancy and early life are now believed to be the factor. …

    Even in the summer, 75% of Scots have been shown to have vitamin D levels that are less than optimal. This rises to 92% in the winter.

    We have found in our general practice in Edinburgh a (to us) surprisingly high prevalence of gross vitamin D deficiency. The deficiency affects not only our South Asian patients but also a considerable number of those with white skin colour.

    There is no evidence that chronic curmudgeonliness is the result of a vitamin deficiency. In the case of the Scottish it is generally attributed to an essential essence of the national character :)

  18. Mark Liberman said,

    September 4, 2009 @ 10:58 am

    Stephen Jones: "There is no evidence that chronic curmudgeonliness is the result of a vitamin deficiency. In the case of the Scottish it is generally attributed to an essential essence of the national character :)"

    I'm glad it's not an inessential essence — those are the really troublesome ones.

  19. Cecily said,

    September 4, 2009 @ 11:42 am

    Mark's poetic quotation reminded me of Flanders and Swann's "Song of the [British] Weather". It doesn't bear much analysis as poetry, but the sentiments will ring true to many:

    January brings the snow
    Makes your feet and fingers glow.
    February's ice and sleet
    Freeze the toes right off your feet.
    Welcome March with wintry wind
    Would thou wer't not so unkind.
    April brings the sweet spring showers
    On and on for hours and hours.
    Farmers fear unkindly May
    Frost by night and hail by day.
    June just rains and never stops
    Thirty days and spoils the crops.
    In July the sun is hot
    Is it shining? No, it's not.
    August cold, and dank, and wet,
    Brings more rain than any yet.
    Bleak September's mist and mud
    Is enough to chill the blood.
    Then October adds a gale:
    Wind and slush and rain and hail.
    Dark November brings the fog;
    Should not do it to a dog.
    Freezing wet December then…
    Bloody January again!

  20. Stephen Jones said,

    September 4, 2009 @ 11:46 am

    I'm glad it's not an inessential essence — those are the really troublesome ones.

    You'd be amazed what play populist politicians get out of them though.

  21. Brian Campbell said,

    September 4, 2009 @ 12:02 pm

    As a resident of the northern US, I've got to say that I'm much more a fan of cold than rainy. Perhaps it's just because it's what I'm more used to, and thus am more well prepared for it. When I get wet, it leads to me being damp and chilly even after getting inside, and when you're damp everything rubs and chafes more. When it's cold, you just toss on a few more layers and you're fine; and if you just get some exercise by skiing, skating, shovelling snow, or something of the sort, even a day in the single digits (°F, around -15°C or so) can feel pretty warm. When it gets to the -20's or so (-30°C), it does become better to just stay indoors, but that doesn't happen all that often.

    But if all that rain and grey are producing all of that lovely peat, and inspiring Scots to roast barely over it before fermenting and distilling it, I'm all in favor. Whether it's intensely cold or just rainy and chilly, a nice bottle of Laphroaig is always welcome.

  22. Nathan said,

    September 4, 2009 @ 1:47 pm

    @Cecily: That poem doesn't quite scan. In the first line, January must be pronounced as three syllables, but as four in the final line. Wiktionary says both pronunciations exist in the UK, but are they in free variation for the same speaker?

  23. Bob Ladd said,

    September 4, 2009 @ 1:52 pm

    My own favourite evaluative expression on British weather reports is bitterly cold, which seems to be able to refer to just about any temperature below freezing. As someone whose formative years were spent in New England and Southern Ontario, I've never managed to get used to this even after 25 years of listening to British weather forecasts.

    Note also the non-evaluative meaning of dry on British weather forecasts, namely "not raining".

  24. Nathan Myers said,

    September 4, 2009 @ 2:21 pm

    When I come to Language Log, I hope to find something more about language than about opinionated weather forecasters. (Is "Cathy" infectious?) I guess it's up to me.

    My AHD traces "atrocious" through Latin atrox, (blackly) cruel, to PIE ater-ok, fired-looking. Apparently the weather forecaster's remark wasn't about the rain itself, but about sooty color of the clouds.

    I wonder if "atrocious" needs to be added to the list of words like "black-hearted" that public servants are obliged to avoid.

  25. Nathan said,

    September 4, 2009 @ 2:26 pm

    Oops. Swap three and four in my comment.

  26. y said,

    September 4, 2009 @ 2:43 pm

    Nathan, you probably need to hear it sung–try YouTube. I believe there's a dactyl substituted in the last line for emphasis.

  27. peter said,

    September 4, 2009 @ 2:56 pm

    A British meteorologist once told me a heuristic for predicting the weather in Britain, which captures the country's weather volatility very well:

    For places inland, the best forecast of tomorrow's weather is today's weather.

    For places on the coast, the best forecast of tomorrow's weather is yesterday's weather.

  28. Richard said,

    September 4, 2009 @ 4:13 pm

    Since Flanders and Swann have reared their heads in Cecily's post, in connection with stereotyped Scottish curmudgeonliness it's hard to resist mentioning their scandalous, grossly unfair, but nonetheless funny Song of Patriotic Prejudice? [The relevant verse begins: "The Scotsman is mean, as we're all well aware | …"]?

  29. sleepnothavingness said,

    September 4, 2009 @ 4:47 pm

    Whatever happened to that good old Scottish word "dreich"?

  30. mollymooly said,

    September 4, 2009 @ 6:27 pm

    British people talk about the weather a lot in casual conversation. A weatherman on TV who stuck to the dry* facts would, by comparison, seem humourless and unsympathetic rather than objective and scientific. This may grate with foreigners used to different conventions.

    That said, one of the biggest controversies in Irish broadcasting in the last ten years came when RTE tried to change the presenters of the weather forecast from professional meteorologists to perky young spokesmodels. There was uproar at the purportedly American-style dumbing down. We want it all: authoritative and human.

    * yes, yes. or "wet".

  31. Ron McMillan said,

    September 5, 2009 @ 8:55 am

    By the wonders of the web I sit in Scotland having been directed to the blog by a friend I last saw in Korea more than ten years ago, but who now lives in what's left of New Orleans.

    As a Scot who has spent more than two-thirds of adulthood abroad and just had to put up with what passes for a summer in these parts, I empathise with many comments. However I am certain that the perceived problem with the weather here is more in the minds of the sufferers than about the actual degree of foulness of the climate.

    We are a nation of moaning minnies, ever keen to find something to complain over. Some of us should make the effort to ignore our inbred assumptions about how 'atrocious' it is outdoors, dress appropriately and get outside and actually take a decent look at the weather (and at ourselves).

    Not for nothing did northern parts of Scotland, including the northernmost Shetland Islands, attract Victorian-era watercolourists from as far away as the Mediterranean. The ever-changing light in Scotland is an incessant source of delight to those of who make the minor effort required to escape the moron-fodder occupying the TV schedules. Even rain can have a spectacular beauty to it; I once stood on the Trotternish Peninsula in northern Skye and watched as a rainstorm swept specacularly across the stunning landscape like a gigantic stage lighting effect – a memory that is a lot more vivid than any one of a thousand blue skies experienced in my travels.

    The blog again made me think of Shetland, where I spent a lot of time researching a travel book that was published in 2008. Shetlanders just get on with life, and never mind that they are more au fait with weather forecasts than anyone I ever met in mainland Britain, they don't let the weather dominate their lives. And, like the people of faraway Oban, they are also very likely to be seen wandering the streets of Lerwick in shirt sleeves at times when I have the goretex jacket firmly zipped.

    Ron McMillan

  32. Ray Girvan said,

    September 5, 2009 @ 11:03 am

    Stephen Jones: I expect Geoff's bizarre affection for Scottish weather comes from decades of living in California

    "Blood-cooled by Calvin, mist and bog / And summers in the rain"
    – Scot in the Desert, Laurie Lee

  33. John Burgess said,

    September 5, 2009 @ 12:56 pm

    A Brit once explained to me:

    In the US, a 100 years is a long time; in the UK, a 100 miles is a long distance

    I'm amused by the Austalian epithet for the US as 'The Land of the Winging Poms'

  34. John Burgess said,

    September 5, 2009 @ 1:02 pm

    Err… that should of course be UK for the Poms…

  35. mike said,

    September 6, 2009 @ 9:18 am

    Everyone one in Scotland should know about the dangers of vitamin D deficiency. Take a look at for some good summaries of the data

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