Winter Weather Words: 'Polar Vortex,' 'Bombogenesis,' 'Snowmageddon,' and more

Samantha Enslen, Writing for
5-minute read
SnOMG it's a woman in snowmageddon

What Is a Nor’easter?

Now we’ll talk about a few types of storms that are specific to the United States. First, there’s the nor’easter, spelled N-O-R-apostrophe-E-A-S-T-E-R. 

Nor’easters mainly affect the Northeastern United States, but that’s not how they got their name. They have that name because their winds come from the northeast off of the Atlantic Ocean. Sailors have long identified storms by the direction of the approaching winds. Over time, they began calling these storms “northeasters” and eventually shortened it to “nor’easter.”

Nor’easters usually occur in the winter, but they don’t always bring snow. In fact, they often act more like hurricanes, bringing strong winds, heavy rains, and ginormous waves. 

The most devastating nor’easter in recent memory was the so-called “bomb cyclone” that occurred in January 2018. It produced boot-covering snow from Maine to North Carolina and the highest tides seen in Boston since 1921. 

Oh, and a “bomb cyclone” refers to a storm in which the barometric pressure falls 24 millibars in 24 hours. (Millibars are the unit scientists use to measure air pressure, by the way.) The formation of such a storm? Naturally, it’s called “bombogenesis.”

What’s a Panhandle Hook?

Another storm unique to the United States is the “Panhandle Hook.” These are storms that build up in the panhandle region of Texas and Oklahoma. They initially move east and then "hook" northeast toward the upper Midwest or Great Lakes region. The leading edge of the storm usually brings heavy snow; the trailing edge, thunderstorms. That’s quite a combination!

The “Panhandle,” by the way, is the name for the rectangular portion of Texas that juts north at the top of the state. It’s bordered by New Mexico on the west and Oklahoma on the north and east.  And yes, it’s called a “panhandle” because it’s straight and narrow like the handle of a pan. The rest of Texas spreads out below it like the belly of a pan. 

Snow in the Southern Hemisphere

I don’t want to leave out our listeners in the Southern Hemisphere. There is snow there! Antarctica, of course, is covered with snow and ice most of the year. The Tibetan Plateau, the Andes Mountains, and the Alps on the South Island of New Zealand also have some snow cover almost all year. Even South Africa sees snow. Just this past winter, we saw giraffes, elephant, and antelope wading through 25 centimeters (or 10 inches) of the white stuff. 

Other Weird Weather Words: 'Graupel,' 'Sastrugi,' 'Snowmaggedon'

Let’s wind up with a few fun words that you can drop into your winter conversations. “Graupel” is a word borrowed from German, meaning snow pellets or small hail. “Grue” is a nearly archaic word for thin, floating ice, like you might find on a river. “Sastrugi” is another word borrowed from German. It means the ridges formed on a snow surface by blowing wind. And “cryology” is the science of snow and ice itself. The root of that word, “cryo-,” comes from the ancient Greek word “ κρύος,” ( “KREE-osh”) meaning “frost and icy cold.”

We’ve also seen some fun but sort-of-made-up words over the past few years: “snowmaggedon,” “snowpocalypse,” “thundersnow,” and SNOMG, a combination of “snow” and “OMG.” These are all examples of portmanteaus: words that combine two parts of other words to make something new.

I hope all our listeners in the Northern Hemisphere stay warm. For those of you in the Southern Hemisphere, we’ll try not to be jealous of your lack of grue, graupel, and Panhandle Hooks.

Samantha Enslen runs Dragonfly Editorial. You can find her at dragonflyeditorial.com or @DragonflyEdit.


Belkin, Douglas, and Erin Ailworth. Polar Vortex Sends Temperatures Plunging; States of Emergency Declared Across Midwest. Wall Street Journal, January 30, 2019 (accessed January 30, 2019).

Donegan, Brian. What is a Nor’easter? The Weather Channel, March 1, 2018 (accessed January 30, 2019).

Fountain, Henry. What Is a ‘Bomb Cyclone?’ Here’s How It Works. New York Times, January 3, 2018 (accessed January 30, 2019).

Jones, James B. What are different types of blizzards? Sciencing, April 24, 2017 (accessed January 30, 2019).

NASA Earth Observatory. Snow Cover (accessed January 30, 2019). 

National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s National Weather Service, Glossary (accessed January 30, 2019). 

National Snow and Ice Data Center. Types of Snow, Where it Snows (accessed January 30, 2019). 

Oxford English Dictionary, online edition. Oxford University Press. Blizzard, cryo, panhandle, vortex (subscription required, accessed January 30, 2019).

Spotted: giraffes in the snow. The Guardian, September 10, 2018 (accessed February 5, 2019). 

Zimmer, Ben. SNOMG! It’s snowmaggedon 2010. Visual Thesaurus, February 11, 2010 (accessed January 30, 2019).

Image courtesy of Shutterstock.


About the Author

Samantha Enslen, Writing for Grammar Girl

Samantha Enslen is an award-winning writer who has worked in publishing for more than 20 years. She runs Dragonfly Editorial, an agency that provides copywriting, editing, and design for scientific, medical, technical, and corporate materials. Sam is the vice president of ACES, The Society for Editing, and is the managing editor of Tracking Changes, ACES' quarterly journal.

You May Also Like...