Words and Stuff Johnny Grimond
‘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.