Everything old is new again

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"Editorial: Of cats, dogs and convection", The Independent, 2/3/2013:

One of the more widespread urban myths whose veracity is disputed is that the Inuit peoples have scores, even hundreds, of different words for snow. Whatever the precise truth, it is certainly the case that those who live in the Far North have more snow-words than those in the temperate latitudes, with the implication, of course, of many different kinds of snow.

Where the Inuits lead, we may be about to follow. The chairman of the Environment Agency is warning of a new kind of rain. Convective rain, says Lord Smith of Finsbury, does not sweep across the country as a curtain, but dumps a deluge in just one place. This altogether alarming, climate-change-related phenomenon may not only add to the problem of flooding; it may also add to the language. “What’s it like outside?” could soon be followed by: “It’s coming down convective”. A useful, if worrying, addition to cats and dogs.

"Convective rain" events may be becoming more common in Britain, but most of us already have ways of referring to them — we call them thunderstorms.  And among meteorologists, the term "convective rain" has been around for a while, even in the British Isles…

V. A. Bell & R. J. Moore, "The sensitivity of catchment runoff models to rainfall data at different spatial scales", Hydrology and Earth System Sciences,, 2000:

The sensitivity of the distributed rainfall-runoff model to the spatial resolution of rainfall data was investigated for periods of predominantly stratiform and convective rain from 20 January to 1 March 1995 and 20-29 May 1994 respectively. […]

The period from 20 to 29 May 1994 experienced episodes of convective activity. An anticyclone was located over Iceland until 27 May with low pressure over southern Britain bringing predominantly easterly winds, cloudy conditions and heavy rain at times with some thunderstorms.

F.A. Huff and G.E. Stout, "Distribution of Radioactive Rainout in Convective Rainfall", Journal of Applied Meteorology, 1964.

Luna B. Leopold, "Diurnal Weather Patterns on Oahu and Lanai, Hawaii", Pacific Science, 1948:

The importance of  convective rain in the Territory  has not  been sufficiently emphasized.

R. S. A. Beauchamp, "Hydrology of Lake Tanganyika", Internationale Revue der gesamten Hydrobiologie und Hydrographie, 1939:

Lake Tanganyika is situated in the tropical belt. For the greater part of the year the midday sun is near the vertical. Most of the rain is convective rain.


  1. Nathan said,

    February 4, 2013 @ 9:51 am

    But how many Eskimo words for convective rain are there?

  2. Rod Johnson said,

    February 4, 2013 @ 11:08 am

    Interesting. Is convective rainfall really identical with thunderstorms, or is it a superset?

    [(myl) I think "convective precipitation" is a superset of thunderstorms.]

  3. J.W. Brewer said,

    February 4, 2013 @ 11:41 am

    It's an interesting rhetorical strategy that they expressly note that the Eskimo-lexicon claim may not actually be true before proceeding to assert that true or not it's good enough to base an analogy on. Of course, English already has quite an inventory of types-of-rain words (drizzle, mist, shower, downpour . . .) as well as types-of-storm-associated-with-rain words (can a squall also be a gullywasher, or are those two non-overlapping things?), the latter of which (in non-specialist use) I imagine vary to some extent regionally with weather patterns. I think "nor'easter" for example is largely regional in the U.S., because the particular storm pattern it describes is only common (for technical meterological reasons) fairly close to the Atlantic seabord and more so as you go farther north and east. That doesn't say anything particularly profoundly Whorfian about those of us who live in the Northeastern U.S. I imagine people who live in California may or may not have a sense of it as meaning "some specific kind of storm I'm vague on the details of that doesn't happen here but that is sometimes in the news as happening on the other side of the country."

  4. Mr Fnortner said,

    February 4, 2013 @ 11:47 am

    Of course "nor'easter" is a figment of the minds of newscasters. For serious downpours I prefer frog-drowner to gully-washer (whichever way the hyphens go).

  5. Alex Blaze said,

    February 4, 2013 @ 12:10 pm

    I was thinking the same thing as JW Brewer. Keller at the NY Times used a similar strategy the other day when arguing against health care efficiency incentives, something like: "it may be apocryphal, but Florida hospitals hand out customer satisfaction surveys after New Yorkers go home since you know New Yorkers!"

    Um, you know it might be wrong and you're publishing it in a newspaper? How do you still have a job at all, much less one of the best journalist jobs in the country?

    Same thing here. It's just a rhetorical device, of course, but the fact that professional journalists would employ it shows how low the standards are in that profession (with some notable exceptions). Keller, and the writer here, should be deathly afraid of publishing something of unknown veracity and so thorough in fact-checking that the idea of even passing along a story that might not be true, for whatever reason, seems at best childish.

    Sadly, no! It's standard practice to fill in the gaps, so who cares! whoo! Party! Get this story out and… happy hour! It's 5pm somewhere!

    And then they wonder why the newspaper industry is dying.

  6. YM said,

    February 4, 2013 @ 12:26 pm

    I like "cloud-burst".

  7. Howard Oakley said,

    February 4, 2013 @ 12:55 pm

    I would not slate that editorial: it reads rather well, and I like the well-phrased mention of the Eskimo snow debate.
    It is true that in a temperate maritime climate like that of the British Isles, convective rain has tended to be the summer downpour. Anyone who has lived in the UK over the last year will know that the pattern of rainfall over that period has been quite different. Whether it is part of a longer-term trend is open to debate (and better evidence).
    Sadly the editorial missed a trick in extending from the Eskimo snow debate to the Mancunian – perhaps now generally British – question as to how many words we have for rain. As a year-round cyclist, mine tend to be confined to terse and fricative-rich.

  8. GeorgeW said,

    February 4, 2013 @ 2:08 pm

    Thanks for the post. It is very helpful since I had never heard the term, "convection rain." All these years living in Florida and I had no concept of what was going on with all that water falling from the sky on summer afternoons. It would take me a paragraph of words to describe the phenomenon.

  9. Stuart said,

    February 4, 2013 @ 3:54 pm

    Springboarding from the old Eskimo snow-words chestnut to English rain words was best done decades ago by Douglas Adams, of course, with Rob Mckenna the Rain God. At least Adams did it with tongue firmly in cheek.

  10. Mr Punch said,

    February 4, 2013 @ 4:27 pm

    The article seems about right. Here in New England (hardly "the far north") we have ski resorts reporting "fresh powder," "loose granular," "frozen granular," "hard pack," etc. BTW, "nor'easter" is indeed a journalistic invention – who talks like that? "Nawtheasta," we'd say.

    [(myl) See "Nor'easter considered fake", 1/25/2004; "The storm is real, the word is still fake", 1/22/2005; "A pretentious and altogether lamentable affectation", 12/28/2010.]

  11. Rubrick said,

    February 4, 2013 @ 5:32 pm

    "Convective rain" just lacks the panache of mandolin rain.

  12. The Ridger said,

    February 4, 2013 @ 8:34 pm

    I've known "convection storm" (not "convective") my whole life, I think, though I don't know how common it is. Maybe growing up in East Tennessee near the Smokies where we get a lot of them in the summer did it, or maybe my parents just used the term often… But for me, it's a particular type of thunderstorm, a subset rather than superset – with the caveat that this is not necessarily what meteorologists mean by it.

  13. the other Mark P said,

    February 4, 2013 @ 10:57 pm

    but most of us already have ways of referring to them — we call them thunderstorms.

    But this assumes he is "selling" terminology. He's not – he's selling fear. And saying we will start seeing "convective rain" is much more scary than saying we might get a few more thunderstorms. So "thunderstorm" will not do for his purposes.

    In the same way Hurricane Sandy had to be a "frankenstorm", because "really quite large storm" has no political resonance at all.

  14. Rodger C said,

    February 5, 2013 @ 8:39 am

    Are you supposed to wear a sou'wester in a nor'easter?

  15. J.W. Brewer said,

    February 5, 2013 @ 12:43 pm

    other Mark P: there's also apparently the possibility that a name other than the original "Hurricane Sandy" was politically/legally advantageous (many NYC-area media seem to have settled into "Superstorm Sandy"), because if it was technically a "hurricane" language in many homeowners' insurance policies would reduce the amount the insurers had to pay. In the immediate aftermath of the storm, various politicians and insurance regulators in NY and Conn (and perhaps in NJ as well?) announced rather heavy-handedly that their meteorological sources had advised them that just prior to landfull the windspeed had conveniently dropped just below whatever breakpoint would allow insurers to properly invoke the hurricane exclusions in the policies and that therefore any insurer who took a different view in handling claims would incur the wrath of the regulators.

  16. Michael W said,

    May 7, 2013 @ 6:42 pm

    Why does this article remind me of a character in one of Douglas Adams' infamous Hitchhikers series, "So Long, And Thanks For All The Fish"?? Partway through the book he was designated by the media as a "rain god".


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