In the beginning was the word for the crisp, clarion, cold sharp light that comes only in winter. For the northern Scots the word was “blinter,” meaning “a cold dazzle.” The best way to define blinter is simply to experience the light of January or February, from star or sun.

And because this is a northern Scots word, I like to think I am channeling the ancestral ken of an ancient grandfather Neilson (for that’s probably what we were, being Norse incomers to Scotland) standing on the headlands in Caithness, and looking east. It works just as well for me looking Bagaduce River-ward across our field in late afternoon winter sun, or upward into the blintery cosmos. Orion is surely a blinter constellation, for instance. It sure feels close.

We can also look down at our feet, appreciating the crystalline blinter of the field of powdery snow in full sun, forcing us to squint at the tracks left by night visitors…owl wing impressions astride ominous talon-prints. There is too much light, too much sparkle – an intensity unrivaled by any other seasonal lumens. It can be accompanied by “aingealach,” or “acute numbness in great frost.” Or you might enjoy the use of the word “apracity”: “the warmth of the sun in winter,” a word that seems to have come in and out of usage around 1623. Do we need it back?

We don’t make words like we used to. Language and experience used to be more intertwined – words held a far more tactile value; onomatopoeia was rampant. We didn’t Google for the lexicon of snow descriptors, but, like the Inuit, imagined how a word might embody its very meaning. “Blinter” does so. It hits our ear like a musical, rather than an etymological, note – an actual sound that blends feeling with descriptive force.  The best words have sensory, roots.

Inherited words are waning and our vocabulary shrinking. Extremes of temperature and precipitation require new language when the customary words don’t do justice to what our senses are experiencing. But contemporary word creation seems to come increasingly from small, smug gestures or opinionated intellectual connections – as “blog” is to “conversation.” New words are punchlines, tag lines, etymological schemes. They are small, trite – sitcom scale, not epic. “Blinter” cannot be reduced to an emoji.

I like Philip Booth’s phrase for the “blinter” experience in his poem “A Man in Maine.” An old man’s final words, exhaled as he chopped wood outside the back door, and recalled by his son:

         this time of 
year the stars
come close some fierce
.

Enough said. Imagine your own eyes taking in that starlight. See what I mean? One good word brings immediacy and power without working too hard at intellectual precision – brings the stars fearsomely closer. Have you needed this word this winter? You knew exactly what it felt like at first sight. Soon, you’ll need “faoilleachd,” the Gaelic word for “the last three weeks of winter and the first three weeks of spring.” It’s what we in Maine just call “March Hill.”

 

 


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