‘The Met Office has announced a Twitter hashtag, #3wordweather, to collect regional weather terms from around the UK. It seems that we don’t have much success interpreting the symbols used in forecasts, with lots of us thinking that the sun symbol just means it will be warm and unable to identify the symbol for sleet.
‘The weather symbols like the sun peeping out from behind a cloud are “iconic”, meaning that they resemble the thing they represent. Words are symbols too, but they’re not iconic: nothing about “sun” resembles the yellow thing we sometimes see in the sky, but we culturally agree that’s what it represents.
‘Herein lies the problem. The television weather symbols are determined by the television stations and we all have to understand them, and we might have differences in how we interpret a cloud with sun and a snowflake. But words for weather, on the other hand, belong to all of us, with all their regional nuances of meaning.
‘Britain is extraordinarily varied linguistically, and it seems we are in our perceptions of weather too. For example, 15C, say the Met Office, is deemed cold in the city shelter of London but warm in East Anglia, where the wind chills your bones.
‘Nevertheless, our words for weather fall into distinct categories. We all know what heavy rain is like, on this damp little island. Our words for it are words for masses of water, as in pouring, bucketing, chucking; they’re words for violent force, like caning, lashing, pelting; or they’re metaphors like stair rods.
‘Words for the heat and cold emphasise the extreme: it’s boiling, roasting, or sweltering; it’s Baltic, or it’d freeze the tail off a brass monkey. Our concepts are the same, and the words we use are the ones that reflect our own community and upbringing. Forecasters can use the ones that their audience knows, and when they say it’s blowing a hooley, for example, we’ll know exactly what they mean.’