Pretty miserable by and large

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Renowned broadcaster (and part-time word maven) John Humphrys gives a quick summary of the weather forecast just before the 7:30 news summary on the BBC Radio 4 "Today" program in the UK each morning; and what he said this morning was a classic of the genre: "Pretty miserable by and large." A charming example, I thought, of the tradition of extremely vague weather-forecast language in the blustery British Isles.

I remember being astonished at the (implausible) scientific precision of the language of American weather forecasts when I moved to California: "a low of 61 and a high of 69", they would say, before giving the exact probability of rainfall ("70% likelihood of precipitation"), and perhaps adding a parts-per-billion pollution index. In Britain it's all "scattered showers and bright intervals" or "cloudy with rain in parts, but a bit nicer later on". Saying "pretty miserable by and large" for the entire country is only very slightly less precise than some of the more official weather forecasts by actual weathercasters. It's a difficult task, predicting what will happen to wet and gusty streams of air over the variegated terrain of some small islands at the edge of the North Atlantic, directly exposed to the Arctic in the north and the notoriously stormy Bay of Biscay in the south.

Those many idealistic souls who imagine that we would do better with a language that was free of vagueness and ambiguity, its terms tightly defined so that the meaning of what we said would always be sharp and clear, forget about tasks like trying to summarize British weather in a few seconds before the news headlines. In that context you're glad of vague hand-waving idioms of generality like by and large, and hedging adverbs like pretty, and sweeping emotion-laden adjectives ranging from human psychology to impressionistic meteorology, like miserable.

The weather as I write (it's after 9 a.m. now, so already the sky is light here in Scotland) is cool and damp. There is a hint of sunshine from behind the thin cloud cover. Edinburgh castle will look extraordinary as always, a brooding grey mass of damp stone a thousand years old overlooking the Princes Street gardens, with hints of sun catching it from some low angle. It's extraordinarily beautiful. Yes, there will be rain and wind some time today, and freezing temperatures in some parts of the country. But it's easier to enjoy than it is to summarize. Humphrys was just enacting the usual British linguistic ritual of weather-grumbling. The weather isn't literally misery-inducing. I take a certain delight in it.

Edinburgh, at least, is never truly frigid like Minnesota at this time of year (I've never even seen a patch of ice here, or snow lasting till after breakfast time, and this is my second winter in residence); and crucially, it's never hot and humid in the summer. No frostbite, no sunburn. A climate in which one can get work done. Don't take John Humphrys seriously: he's just leavening the British linguistic tradition of understatement with a little meteorological hyperbole.


  1. Curious Bunny said,

    December 12, 2008 @ 5:29 am

    I remember seeing a brief BBC weather forecast a couple of years ago; they typically leave us with a potted summary of what's to come, and on this occasion, when the weather was pleasant but a front was moving in, the wording was simply "It won't last". That singularly British forecast has now acquired legendary status in the Bunny household.

  2. Nigel Greenwood said,

    December 12, 2008 @ 5:31 am

    Re British weather-speak:

    1. I once heard the remarkably alliterative forecast Wet & windy weather waiting in the wings to the west of Wales.

    2. A confusion of constuctions often heard on BBC forecasts: "Rain will be spreading its way south …"; "The front will be tracking its way eastwards …".

    3. As a glider/sailplane pilot, I often have to read between the lines of the forecasts: eg when the forecaster admits apologetically that "some cloud will be popping up in the afternoon, but …" I know that we may be in for one of the best thermic flying days of the year.

  3. möngke said,

    December 12, 2008 @ 5:57 am

    Professor Pullum must be joking about the Edinburgh climate being delightful. Obviously you never had to walk down the stairs in the windtunnel between the David Hume Tower and the Adam Ferguson Building in horizontal sleet and wind that can easily throw 70 kilograms of undergraduate flesh off balance. Has happened to me quite a few times last year.

    Another rationale that I've heard for the prevalence of weather-speak in Britain is that weather is a good conversational topic because it changes all the time. Probably too crude to cite as an ultimate reason, but it is true, especially comparing it to weather in the part of continental Europe which I come from – which reminds me that newscasters in Slovenia are much more likely to be vague about political and economic predictions than weather forecasts.

    [I grant you, the DHT/AFB windtunnel effect is pretty scary — I've been in it hundreds of times, of course, because my office used to be in 14BP. But even with that, the thing to do is to love it. People climbing the north face of the Eiger don't grumble about it being a bit chilly. You're there for the harsh conditions and the adrenalin rush and the sense of achievement. It's the same with getting up the steps from Buccleuch Place to reach the William Robertson Building. It feels like an achievement. You know you're alive, and fit and healthy. Edinburgh is not for wimps. And luckily I am not a wimp. —GKP]

  4. Paul said,

    December 12, 2008 @ 6:04 am

    Here in the wet and windy west of Wales, one has to learn to recognise the true meaning of phrases like "there may be the odd shower developing". Perhaps this is what our American friends mean by "70% likelihood of precipitation". My favourite weather-forecast-language-spotting game, incidentally, is to count the instances of "from the word go", which seems a particular favourite of some forecasters.

    Still, mustn't grumble. A combination of listening between the lines to the forecast in the morning on BBC Radio Wales and old-fashioned having a good look out of the window at the clouds usually gives me a pretty accurate idea of what the day has in store.

  5. Robert M Maier said,

    December 12, 2008 @ 6:25 am

    Three other comments, united by nothing but me and the topic:

    1. I find that living in Britain has hugely increased the proportion of weather talk in my conversations.

    2. "Good" and "bad" are not terms that can easily be applied to Edinburgh weather. Let's just say it has the attention span of a four year old with ADHD on two cups of strong coffee.

    3. In the acknowledgements of "The Shape of English", Roger Lass expresses his gratitude to the city of Capetown "for being a place that keeps my feet warm". Now correct me if I'm wrong, but I seem to remember that Professor Lass' last academic stop before Capetown was… Edinburgh?

    [Absolutely right: Roger Lass was at Edinburgh for years. And he still visits with some regularity. Wearing an extra pair of socks. —GKP]

  6. Laurent C said,

    December 12, 2008 @ 6:25 am

    This discussion is vaguely related: apparently the British also tend to be less accurate than Americans when discussing quantities for cooking:

  7. Marinus said,

    December 12, 2008 @ 6:43 am

    In the defence of some of those idealistic souls who prefer preciseness to ambiguity in language, Bertrand Russell for one, the idea is to have a more precise language available where formal work requires it, not to remove phrases like 'by and large' out of the vocabulary wholesale. The problem with vagueness isn't that people don't always nail down the meanings of what they're saying, it's that too often there is no more precise description available.

  8. Mark said,

    December 12, 2008 @ 7:22 am

    The best example is of course when Newsnight tried to make Paxman do the weather.

    (Okay, maybe a slightly different kettle of fish, but any excuse to watch that clip again…)

  9. Stephen Jones said,

    December 12, 2008 @ 7:34 am

    For a Saudi, good weather is when it rains. You look out the window and think, "shit it's pissing it down", and have a gaggle of delighted students all telling you what a good day it is.

    Our feelings about weather are very subjective. I have no doubt Pullum's hot and humid is my idea of pleasantly warm. Last night everybody was telling me how cold it was, and it was feeling a little nippy as I was writing this so I checked out the temperature on (82F, 70% humidity, feels like 87F). My attitude is, I hope it doesn't get any colder, but I suspect Geoffrey's would be different.

    For those of you in colder climes at least you will never get a weather report about a typical Arabian countryside phenomenon. A plastic bag storm. The Arabian desert is full of discarded plastic bags, and when there's a strong wind they, filled with sand, get blown in your face. Makes Edinburgh wind tunnels seem pleasant.

  10. Rachel Cotterill said,

    December 12, 2008 @ 7:57 am

    1. I think it was Eddie Izzard who said there's no such thing as 'bad weather' – just inappropriate clothing (and that there's also no such thing as 'bad language').

    2. Anecdotal evidence to back up the theory that we talk about the weather because it's so changeable: I had a Spanish friend to stay, who experienced a variety of weathers in the short time he was staying, and who turned round and said "now I understand why you Brits talk about the weather so much – there's something to talk about!!"

  11. Harry said,

    December 12, 2008 @ 8:05 am

    Of course, if you do want the information overload version of British weather, there's always the shipping forecast which occasionally interrupts the cricket:

  12. Virtual Linguist said,

    December 12, 2008 @ 8:20 am

    The curmudgeonly Humphrys is pretty miserable by and large himself!

  13. Mark P said,

    December 12, 2008 @ 9:07 am

    Weatherpeople at major US TV stations are quite well paid and are usually more popular as personalities than the other news staff. It's a major part of the news shows.

    The precision in US TV forecasts is illusory. At best they are trying to predict to a degree or so at the location of the official weather site, which is usually the airport. There is so much variation in temperature over a station's market that it's ridiculous to expect the forecast to apply with any precision at any given location.

  14. Kyle said,

    December 12, 2008 @ 9:18 am

    I'm actually one of those people that usually prefers weather that most others call "pretty miserable by and large", and actually doesn't like it when it is overly sunny (reverse SAD perhaps? or perhaps mild vampirism?). So I vastly prefer the more clinical description of the weather precisely because I don't want to have to guess what the forecaster's interpretive framework is. I would rather hear the raw data and apply that to my own interpretive grid.

    Also, as a velo-commuter, I actually have to pay attention to the minutiae of weather, because there's a huge difference in what I wear if I expect the mean temp to be 30 degrees F, 40 degrees, or 50 degrees; a more precise account of the predicted weather actually has practical implications for me. I find it odd that it is England, which has (at least by reputation) more non-car commuters, that doesn't offer this precise info, whereas as car-ruled California does.

    From another perspective, I wonder if the more clinical, specific terminology started to dominate American weather reporting when, about a decade or so ago, they started hiring meteorologists to give weather reports (despite the fact that it really doesn't take a meteorologist's skills to do the job) because they thought that having a certified professional would give their weather reports more credibility.

  15. Bob O'H said,

    December 12, 2008 @ 9:43 am

    The other side of the British weather thing is that foreign weather is so boring: you get up in the morning, look out of the window, and you pretty much know what the weather is going to be like all day.

    One of the bad things about living in Finland, as i do now, is that it doesn't do "blustery" very well. I guess that's because spring and autumn take up one week between them (whereas in the UK summer and winter do the same).

  16. Matt Heath said,

    December 12, 2008 @ 10:58 am

    the exact probability of rainfall ("70% likelihood of precipitation")

    It's probably not accurate to talk about that sort of phrase as an "exact probability of rainfall"; it's fundamentally a property of their models rather than of the weather itself. Presumably it means something like "we ran the simulation n times and it rained in 0.7n of them" (or else a Bayesian measure of the uncertainty in the forecasting)

    I think it was Eddie Izzard who said there's no such thing as 'bad weather' – just inappropriate clothing

    Ted Hughes, I think.

  17. Mark P said,

    December 12, 2008 @ 11:05 am

    Matt, even the weatherguys are a little unclear on the exact meaning of their probabilities of precipitation. I have heard them say that they have decided to ignore one model because they don't believe it. But at least when they talk about precip, they use probabilities. They don't when they predict the high and low temperatures. But, as I said, they predict and report temperatures for specific places, and those are almost certainly not where you are.

    One radio weatherman in Atlanta, Ga, has his own rating system. He says the weather today will be, say, a nine on the Mellish meter. The rating varies by season. A nine in winter is very different from a nine in summer.

  18. Moses said,

    December 12, 2008 @ 11:17 am

    For Kyle's benefit, the reason that UK forecasts don't offer accurate temperature guides is that stated by others above; namely that the weather is likely to vary significantly from hour to hour and from place to place.

    [On a separate note, that's an interesting term I haven't heard before: a "Velo-commuter". Is it specific to CA? How does it differ from "cyclist"? My wife cycles to work, but she'd never think of herself as a velo-commuter.]

  19. Diarmid Campbell said,

    December 12, 2008 @ 12:27 pm

    British (not 'English' unless specifically so) weather forecasting involves some tumbles into suburban language at times. There was one young lady meteorologist on BBC television Breakfast Show and News (given a prize for her work and not seen since) who could always be relied upon the use doubles; dribs and drabs, spits and spots, bibs and bobs (whatever they are). But she could be commended for avoiding the phrases beloved of British sports figures – "at the end of the day" – used as if they longed to get there – either to bed or out of the interview.
    The prize forecaster on the same shows (and that they are nowadays) is Carol Kirkwood (from Moidart in the Western Highlands)? who is a great favourite since she can be relied upon to be positive under almost all circumstances and merely laughs riotously when her brolly blows out.

  20. Ray Girvan said,

    December 12, 2008 @ 1:23 pm

    Pretty miserable by and large

    That is actually quite specific. It's overcast; cold, but not frozen and/or snowing; raining; some wind but not an overt gale or storm. Just a low-grade mix of aspects of weather (cloudiness, wind, cold and rain) that people commonly dislike.

  21. Cameron Majidi said,

    December 12, 2008 @ 1:57 pm

    I think British weather-speak was epitomized well by Spike Milligan, when he included the phrase "Winds light to variable" in a classic Goon Show script.

  22. Killer said,

    December 12, 2008 @ 2:40 pm

    I'm amazed at how every single American local-news weather forecast includes an entire minute or two of talk about high-pressure systems, occluded fronts, cold-air systems coming down from Canada, warm air over the Dakotas, etc., etc., etc. Does one viewer in a thousand understand what that's about, or care? I just want to know what I should wear tomorrow, and how far open to leave my window tonight.

    And why would the entire viewing audience need to know how the weather was today in Atlanta, Chicago, and Washington, DC? Does anyone give a shit when the station has Doppler Weather Radar? Think of the time wasted on all this garbage, every day on every TV station across the country — time that could be devoted to stories about kittens stuck in trees.

  23. old maltese said,

    December 12, 2008 @ 2:50 pm

    Patrick O'Brian readers (and other salts) will recall that 'by and large' originally was a nautical term.

    A ship sails well 'by and large' if it sails well both to the wind and off from the wind.

  24. John Wainwright (a pom) said,

    December 12, 2008 @ 3:16 pm

    In Queensland the weather forecast is in the tourism brochure. "Beautiful one day. Perfect the next." Where the bloody hell are yer?

    You may as well believe the tourism blurb, but check the forecast:

  25. Mark P said,

    December 12, 2008 @ 3:53 pm

    Killer, I don't know whether Americans are interested in the weather or the man or woman who does the weather, but the weather/weatherman is a big deal in most markets. The different stations (mainly the three or four network affiliates) sometimes have a war of words about whose radar is bigger, or who has the best software to track lightning hits. The weatherguys visit local schools and show photos from viewers. They have contests (if the weatherguy doesn't hit the daily high within plus or minus 5F, a viewer is chosen at random to get a free weather radio or something – as if hitting the temperature within that range is such a big deal). It's like the rest of the news: if the newspeople make a big deal about it, then it must be a big deal.

  26. Marilyn Martin said,

    December 12, 2008 @ 4:10 pm

    The Weather Forecast in Anglican Chant is one of my favorites:

    The shipping forecast in particular is a gem of vagueness.

  27. Rubrick said,

    December 12, 2008 @ 4:17 pm

    Here I thought you were going to say something about the origins of the distinctly nonconstructive idiom "by and large". I have no guess as to how that one might have come about.

  28. Martyn Cornell said,

    December 12, 2008 @ 5:20 pm

    Rubrick – as Old Maltese said, "by and large" is a naval expression. Actually, the definition you'll find at that link isn't quite accurate – "by and large" doesn't cover direct headwinds, which is why the expression means "mostly" or "under almost all circumstances", rather than "completely". If you sail into a direct headwind, of course, you'll be taken aback, which can be very dangerous …

  29. Faith said,

    December 12, 2008 @ 6:53 pm

    I heard an interview on the CBC this week with that doctor who amputated a shoulder in an African MSF field hospital using only rudimentary tools and with no sterile ward to give post-operative care. An amazing story. Started this way:

    CBC reporter: What was the young man's condition when he came into the hospital?
    Doctor: He was very poorly; very poorly indeed.

    The patient was actually a few days from certain death, had the operation not been possible. British vagueness at its most understated. (In our house we have been going around saying "very poorly indeed" ever since).

  30. Nicholas Waller said,

    December 12, 2008 @ 8:06 pm

    @ Faith – also, that doctor in the Congo got instructions by phone texts from the UK, as he wasn't sure what he was doing. And he apparently only had one spare pint of blood to work with.

    As opposed to being "badly injured", British victims of car crashes and similar are generally said to be "seriously ill" in hospital.

  31. Garrett Wollman said,

    December 12, 2008 @ 10:02 pm

    Regarding the relative specificity of U.S. weather forecasts: NOAA runs several global climate models two or more times each day. Those models discretize weather conditions by dividing the world up into grid squares and running a more computationally-tractable local model in each square. One of the models NOAA runs, called GFS if I'm remembering correctly, generates as its output a forecast for every one of those grid squares at a granularity of a few hours. These results are now being published for every model run in something called the National Digital Forecast Database, which is indexed by ZIP code. The uncertainty in this forecast is substantial, but since the media get an "exact" number out of it, that's what they report. A professional meterologist will, one hopes, have had some training in how these climate models work and where the uncertainty comes from. So the National Weather Service also publishes broader area forecasts, which come with a technical memo called the "Area Forecast Discussion" that explains how they made their forecasts. Longer-term forecasts are based on other models with less granularity.

    TV meterologists are only important in places where the weather matters a lot to people. I met one a few years ago in Portland, Oregon — a place where he could make his forecast a year in advance and stand a much better than 50% chance of being right each day — who had moved there from New Orleans the day after Katrina. He missed being in a market with interesting weather, and was talking about moving back to the Gulf Coast when his contract with the Portland station expired. (Much of the West Coast is like that.)

  32. Yanpol said,

    December 13, 2008 @ 5:52 am

    "A climate in which one can get work done"

    Dear Professor Pullum, that was a pearl of wisdom. I do Classics at Edinburgh University (at windy DHT) and I share your opinion about Edinburgh not being for wimps. Coming from a city with hot damp low-pressure summers, I can tell you that British weather is not that bad. A friend of mine used to say that our underdevelopment was caused by our summers scorching our brains.

  33. Student said,

    December 13, 2008 @ 3:05 pm

    I've spent time in the library, I've borrowed English Grammars and it is pleasant to see that Pullum is more than a Grammarian after reading the inspirational lines about Edinburgh's weather. Give me a John Humphry's report anyday, ours is often about 'a bit of' rain or cloud or whatever.

  34. Garbanzo said,

    December 14, 2008 @ 5:01 am

    It was quite a shock when I moved to California to encounter in a weather forecast statements like, "Tomorrow's highs will be 55 to 85 [F]." It's because there is huge variation within the region reached by a single broadcast outlet. You have to layer on top of the forecast your own knowledge, gained from experience, of the relative climate of different locations within the region. From such a forecast I would expect a high temperature in the low 80s at my office, the mid 70s at my house, mid 60s at one friend's house, low 60s at another friend's house, and 55 at the beach.

  35. Aaron Davies said,

    December 14, 2008 @ 7:11 am

    The recent _Twilight_ book/movies series features a family of vampires who move to the Olympic peninsula of Washington state to get out of the sun.

  36. Ben Teague said,

    December 14, 2008 @ 10:53 am

    Bob O'H — "spring and autumn take up one week between them (whereas in the UK summer and winter do the same)" — prompted a memory. My wife, then professing in Austin, Texas, had in her English class a student from Austin, Minnesota. The kid, as he told it, had come to Texas on a dare. A classmate asked, "What do you do in the summer in Minnesota?" The alien replied, "If it comes on a Saturday, we have a picnic."

  37. Dan Lufkin said,

    December 14, 2008 @ 11:28 am

    Prof. Pullum,

    Is it true that Scotsmen have dozens of words for drizzle?

  38. Nigel Greenwood said,

    December 14, 2008 @ 1:48 pm

    @ Dan Lufkin:
    Let's hear it for the Scots word dreich, described as "a combination of dull, overcast, drizzly, cold, misty and miserable weather".

    I know this is OT, but LL readers may enjoy browsing the Scots Wikipedia, eg the airticle aboot Embra.

  39. Baylink said,

    December 14, 2008 @ 4:54 pm

    > 2. "Good" and "bad" are not terms that can easily be applied to Edinburgh weather. Let's just say it has the attention span of a four year old with ADHD on two cups of strong coffee.

    As it happens, I was in a relationship with a woman whose 4 year old had ADHD, and it turns out that two cups of strong coffee *helps*, for exactly the same reason that Ritalin and it's successor ADD/ADHD amelioratives do (though I don't think anyone is quite sure why, yet) — it's a stimulant.

  40. jaap said,

    December 15, 2008 @ 2:03 am

    The Dutch do a fair bit of talking about the weather too. I only just realised that our word for drizzle, "miezer", sounds like to could have the same linguistic root as 'miserable'. Are they related?

  41. Robert M Maier said,

    December 15, 2008 @ 6:51 am

    @ baylink: I see; right, now that you mention it… so i'll better withdraw the ADHD from the metaphor, huh? Guess I'll just have to give kid more coffee then… ;)

  42. Irene said,

    December 15, 2008 @ 12:53 pm

    I'm from Philadelphia, the city of Mary-merry-marry contrasting fame. And although I've been in the Baltimore area for many years, I still have difficulty with the local accent.

    Last winter while driving to work, I heard a local weather announcer say that there was a chance of "flairies". I thought this was a new, weather related portmanteau like "smog", but I could not figure the source words.

    Of course, she was saying "flurries".

  43. Andrew said,

    December 17, 2008 @ 7:35 am

    The Australian Bureau of Meteorology in its formal forecasts for the state of Victoria variously foreshadows "showers", "scattered showers" and "isolated showers". I have always assumed that those three are in order of most-frequent to least-frequent showers, but nowhere on the BoM website have I aver been able to confirm that.

  44. Claire said,

    December 18, 2008 @ 5:38 am

    The BEST Radio 4 Today show weather forecast I've ever heard was when Humphrys, pushed for time, said:

    And the weather today: Rain.
    Our producer today was…

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