Words and Stuff Johnny Gri­mond

The Oldie - - CONTENTS - Johnny Gri­mond: Words and Stuff

‘Though the weather was wet and bois­ter­ous…’ be­gan a re­port from 1893 reprinted in ‘From Our Archives’ in my lo­cal pa­per. For most of this sum­mer Bri­tain’s weather was far from bois­ter­ous, and like­wise the lan­guage of its me­te­o­rol­o­gists. English, so rich in words to de­scribe our usual weather, seems to of­fer lit­tle to those who have to tell us, day af­ter day, to ex­pect just heat.

Things will have changed by the time you read this, but even so you must re­mem­ber be­ing told that high pres­sure has been ‘in charge’. It’s about the only mem­o­rable com­ment the broad­cast­ers ever have to make about good weather and for some rea­son it’s re­served for high pres­sure.

When low pres­sure sends wave af­ter wave of vile weather our way, vis­it­ing upon us gales, tor­rents and tem­pests, it is never cred­ited with be­ing in charge. Low pres­sure is deemed dis­or­derly. It has never got its act to­gether. It has never been licked into shape. Nei­ther Jupiter, Thor nor Zeus has taken it in hand. The weather gods sim­ply sit out most of our dank win­ters, watch­ing box sets and do­ing su­dokus. Low pres­sure is never in charge.

High pres­sure, by con­trast, may parch us and scorch us. It may force us to lurk in­doors through the mid­dle of the day, to ven­ture out only with bot­tles of wa­ter, to cover up and anoint our­selves with high-fac­tor unguents and lo­tions. But never let it be said that it is not in charge. To high pres­sure alone are at­trib­uted the qual­i­ties of or­der and dis­ci­pline. It is ev­ery­thing that Mrs May is not.

The weather fore­cast de­serves bet­ter treat­ment than it gets in the coun­try that pro­duced Charles Mac­in­tosh and Mrs Gamp. Ad­mit­tedly, though Bri­tish fore­cast­ers are un­able to men­tion ‘mist’ with­out adding ‘murk’ and take a te­dious de­light in records (‘the warm­est March Tues­day since 2014’), they do not tor­ture us with ‘shower ar­eas’ and ‘ma­jor thun­der­storm ac­tiv­ity’, the ev­ery­day stuff of Amer­i­can weath­er­men. Ad­mirably, too, the Ship­ping Fore­cast on Ra­dio 4 main­tains its tra­di­tional com­bi­na­tion of plain words (no more than 350) for its de­scrip­tions and out­landishly ro­man­tic names for the 31 sea ar­eas it cov­ers.

But so it should. If talk about the weather is Bri­tain’s lead­ing na­tional pas­time, then the Ship­ping Fore­cast is surely Bri­tain’s lead­ing na­tional bul­letin. Fore­cast­ing, like the Met Of­fice, was started by Robert Fitzroy, the cap­tain of HMS Bea­gle on Charles Dar­win’s voy­age to Tierra del Fuego. Fitzroy was not only a good hy­dro­g­ra­pher and me­te­o­rol­o­gist, but a word­smith: he coined the term ‘fore­cast’ for his storm warn­ings.

The Ship­ping Fore­cast has been lov­ingly cel­e­brated, and par­o­died, of­ten in verse. Frank Muir and De­nis Nor­den wrote: ‘In Ross and Fin­is­terre / The out­look is sin­is­terre. / Rock­all and Lundy / Will clear up by Mon­day.’ Sea­mus Heaney was more re­spect­ful: ‘Dog­ger, Rock­all, Malin, Ir­ish Sea: / Green, swift up­surges, North At­lantic flux…’ To Carol Ann Duffy it brings com­fort: ‘Dark­ness out­side. In­side, the ra­dio’s prayer – / Rock­all. Malin. Dog­ger. Fin­is­terre.’

The Bri­tish are an is­land na­tion. The soft poetry of a lilt­ing Ship­ping Fore­cast suits their soul. But though their weather is mostly mild, they have a huge lex­i­con of weather words, many re­lated to rain. Robert Mac­far­lane lists nearly 100 in his book Land­marks. The on­line His­tor­i­cal Th­e­saurus of Scots has more than 600. We can­not ask to have the fore­cast lit­tered with skats, dimpseys and plother­ings (show­ers in Northamp­ton­shire, driz­zle in Corn­wall and down­pours in Le­ices­ter­shire), but a lit­tle bois­ter­ous­ness, per­haps even the oc­ca­sional ‘welkin’ or ‘willi­waw’, might spice up the broad­cast­ers’ diet of clichés.

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