Friday, January 28, 2011

A SKIFT OF SNOW


It snowed last night—not much, perhaps a half-inch or so of fluffy white. Just enough to partially fill in the various tracks of birds, cats, squirrels, dogs and people who, over time, had all contributed to make such a messy hodgepodge in the several inches of snow that fell a few days ago. Now, everything is softened, sharp edges are once again rounded.

Some might refer to this snow as a "dusting." But in my growing-up household, a distinction would have been made—my mother and father, and my Grandpa Williams, would have thought it too much snow to use the term "dusting," and instead declared it a "skift." Skift is an old word of Scottish-Irish usage. It's exact etymology is uncertain, sometimes debated; many lesser dictionaries don't even list it, while modern spellcheckers flag it as incorrect. But the word has been in usage in this country since our earliest days, and long before that in what is now the United Kingdom. Some folks say skift while others say skiff—though I use the term skiff to mean a fairly small boat. The usually definitive Oxford English Dictionary says either is correct, but adds that skiff may be a specialized use of skift—which indicates to me that skift is the older term. I do know that among people who know and use these words, the distinction is always made: skiff, boat; skift, snow.   

As I said, the amount of snow which fell wasn't much—a skift—though if you were a hunter, it be would be good news because it would prove an excellent tracking snow…all you needed to locate or trail rabbits, pheasants, grouse, foxes, or deer. To a hunter, a "tracking snow" is like an otherwise blank sheet of paper containing a highly visible record—a timeline map—of animal activity over the most recent hours. Of course you don't have to carry a gun to hunt—you can also carry a camera or binoculars—and spend half a morning or half an hour afield. 

But in even a short time, you can learn a great deal of what went on—who was out and about doing what—while you slept. Here is the delicate tracery of a mouse or vole looking for seeds. There's where the local whitetail trio passed through the corner of the yard, and the one which detoured slightly from the group to nibble a few tips off the neighbor's apple tree. This track might be a dog, or possibly a coyote—though the straighter in-line trail indicate the latter; not a fox, though, due to size and more pronounced rear pads. And here's a squirrel, sharp-edged, obviously recent; made post-dawn. There were rabbits meandering everywhere and—uh, oh…looks like one meandered into the talons of a great-horned owl; the tracks simply end, with a sort of sweeping pattern on either side where the owl's wingtips brushed aside the new snow. 

Death simply swooped silently from the darkness and snatched up the luckless bunny. So says the skift of snow. 
———————

33 comments:

KGMom said...

Truth be told, you had me at the title. A skift, eh?
Not a word I had encountered before.
Puts me in mind of old PA Dutch (aka German) expressions for light rain--as in "it's spritzing."
Wonderful how we appropriate and absorb terms from various languages.
...poor bunny, even though the owl has to eat.

The Solitary Walker said...

I only just learnt the phrase ' a skiff of snow' the other day - and now I've learnt the variation! Lovely stuff.

Linda said...

Great post, Grizz. One our our local TV weathermen took some grief from his fellow on-air personalities for using the phrase, "a skift of snow." But he stuck to his guns and proved his point with a dictionary.

Beyond My Garden said...

As a word-person, I love this entry. You sent me looking. It is hard to find anything on "skift." I did find a place that said, "no.It is not a word." WRONG! It looks like the best most recent definition is" To clothe (one's self) afresh or anew; change the dress of." (from Wordnik.com saying that it is akin to "shift" This is what the thin new snow does. I agree with you that dusting is to a lesser degree and not enough to "clothe anew." Thanks for wordy inspiration as well as the nice photographs.
nellie

Grizz………… said...

KGMom…

Yup, skift. A fine old word, which came to America with the first of the Scotch-Irish. Most of my kin arrived here during the 1600s. Skift is one of those odd words from Elizabethan English, now archaic in some instances, which you might also find in the works of Alfred, Chaucer, Shakespeare, or the original King James translation of the Bible.

Oddly, there's almost no influence of German speech to be found within these words, though your PA Dutch had a whole lexicon of what many now call quaint words and phrases—and in spite of the fact that while most of the earliest white settlers and explorers of what would today be considered Appalachia were Scotch-Irish, probably the second largest group were what's called Palatine Germans. The only word that spans both groups may be "briggity," which all my people regularly used and meant sort of annoyingly egotistical.

Besides skift, some other words of similar linage and date which I grew up regularly using, but other folks often curious or eccentric are: backset (partially recovering from a sickness or injury, then getting worse); blinky (spoiled or soured, usually applied to milk); poke (smaller bag or sack); gaummed (get dirty, usually hands, and especially with something sticky); pone (a baked loaf of quick bread, hand formed, of—usually—biscuit dough.)

When it comes right down to it, we U.S. Americans really have very few of our own words. Most of our language has been appropriated from other times and cultures.

As that bunny's demise goes, it might not be so bad…it sure beats rotting away in some hospital or long-term care facility. Better quick and usefully.

Grizz………… said...

Solitary…

Please, as a neophyte user, I beg of you…start out right! Help prevent the offshoot variant from obliterating the older, more specific word—use skift for snow instead of skiff, as that's already too connected to boats. I'm sure old Sam Johnson would second this plea! :-D

Grizz………… said...

Linda…

Good for your local TV weatherman! The media in all its forms is being overrun by the semi-illiterate and downright ignorant—most of whom couldn't tell you the difference between implied and inferred or further and farther if their lives depended upon it. I'm glad some, such as your fellow, still have and use a vocabulary that numbers more than a few texting-butchered words, and the gumption to let the fools yammer afterwards in ignorant bliss.

Hilary said...

A new term for me. It's certainly more than a dusting and less than a dump. Lovely post, as always.

Grizz………… said...

Beyond My Garden…

If you Google the phrase "skift of snow" you'll come up with all sorts of bizarre answers, most of them wrong. First off, historically skift appeared before the word skiff as applied to a small boat. Skift has always meant a light amount of something—rain, snow, even wind. It is not, as some sources speculate, of Scandinavian origin just because it is most often employed to describe snow. Neither, according to any reliable sources I've used, does it mean to " To clothe (one's self) afresh or anew; change the dress of." (from Wordnik.com saying that it is akin to "shift"…and I've never seen it connected to "shift." You could stretch the meaning and say snow clothes the land…but does a light rain clothe the earth, or clouds the sky. Nope, I think Wordnik is all wrong.

The Scottish National Dictionary says this: 1) skift, 2) skiff “A slight or flying shower of rain or snow,” skiftin “A light fall or sprinkling of snow.”]: 1) Also often skiff, rarely skiffing, skiffling: A light fall of snow (or, rarely, rain); a thin layer of snow or frost on the ground, or of ice on water. 2) A wisp of clouds.

I thinks that's about the best, and historically most accurate definition around. I like words, too, especially some of the old words, names, terms, phrases. Words keep our language rich—in both depth and breadth. Glad I sent you word-looking.

Grizz………… said...

Hilary…

Well, in all honesty…while I and everyone I've ever heard use the term when applying it to snow always differentiated a skift as being more than a dusting, by definition this might be unsupportable hair-splitting. But it's certainly way less than a dump! I'd say a half-inch is about the upper limit; after that it's just a light snow.

Scott said...

A friend picked up a Long-eared Owl and rabbit from the road near here. It looks like the owl had captured the rabbit, and then, sadly, got struck by a car.

We didn't get a skift, here, we got a dump: 15 inches!

Kelly said...

We definitely received more than a dusting...about an inch.5 here....but a skift sounds perfect. It's a new word for me, which is strange because I usually know all the Irish variations because of my Irish-Descent-Don't-You-Forget-It-And-You-Might-As-Well-Kiss-Me-Now-Grandma. (She had the biggest, sweetest personality you can imagine...). I'll have to add it to my vocab.

(I liked reading about your snow track sleuthing...poor little bunny, but the owl survived another cold night because of him...)

The Weaver of Grass said...

Oh yes, there is no doubt about it Grizz, snow is a wonderful teller of tales about who and what has passed by. And I love that word skift - it says so much.

Grizz………… said...

Scott…

Yes, I can definitely see the skift/dump difference between what you received and what fell here. What was that weather term you used…snow burst?…which, judging by your blog pix (lovely and amazing, by the way) you got more like a snow bomb.

I've found several owls alongside highways over the years, mostly great horned, but a couple of barred owls and one barn owl; never a long-eared, though. I wonder if, when the car came, the owl refused to give up its prey, tried to lift and fly away—but couldn't get airborne in time? A rabbit seems a pretty big flight load for a long-eared owl.

Grizz………… said...

Kelly…

I don't know when your grandmother's people came over—but keep in mind there were really three waves of Irish immigrants to what is now the U.S. Most folks know about the so-called Potato Famine Irish, from 1845-1850; before that, starting about 1812, and lasting approximately 30 years, was the largest Irish immigration to the New World.

But…before these two massive immigrations waves was an earlier group of Irish, in the 1600s, to whom I'm directly related—a tiny wave, what you might call the adventurous Irish. They mostly arrived and settled in eastern seaports. Yet a significant number went wandering off, joining exploration and trading parties, long hunts, surveying expeditions, and various fighting forces. They brought their language with them.

Now what's important here is that it occurred a good 200 years before the next Irish bunch, uh, invaded. And this footloose, oldline Irish are the ones who settled the Appalachians, before, during and after the French and Indian War and the Revolutionary War; they traipsed down the new Wilderness Road with Boone. And in the isolated hills and hollers their old language persisted, pure, undiluted. They used and pronounced words that would have been familiar to Shakespeare's ears.

Unfortunately, it only takes a single generation to lose a word or phrase. For example, my daughter has heard both my mother and myself say skift. She knows what it means—but I don't think she uses it. Her kids (if she ever gets around to having them!) will never hear the word used during those most language-formative years. So in my branch of the family tree, the word will die out forever…and with it a linguistic connection hundreds of years old. Perhaps that's why your grandmother never used the word—someone along the line failed to pass it along.

Grizz………… said...

Weaver…

Tracks and signs in the snow can often tell you more about local animal behavior in a hour than you might learn in a decade of casual observing.

By all means, embrace and use skift. It's a fine old word.

BTW, as you asked the other day, today's view upstream shows a portion of the river now frozen over—with that skift of snow rendering it white. :-)

Robin said...

Skift. What a perfect word for what it is.

My Dad tells me I created the word 'crumpy' when I was little, for the heavy, wet snow that 'crumps' in sound and feel when you walk on it.

Makes sense to me.....

Thanks for the 'larnin'....

George said...

Thanks for this new word to my vocabulary, Grizz. I will be more careful in the future before falling back on the old "dusting of snow." Lovely photos.

Grizz………… said...

Robin…

Crumpy sounds like a perfectly good made-up word; it fits what you're describing.

My Dad always used to refer to the scolding sound a squirrel makes as "squacking." I don't know if he made the word up, though I suspect it was an older term learned from his father…and who knows how many generations of squirrel hunters and mountain people back. It is, however, the perfect descriptive word for the sound.

Grizz………… said...

George…

Words are, to me, like coins in my pocket—the legal tender needed to buy my way through language via description and understanding. They serve as the tools to negotiate the twisted paths of daily life. They allow for precision and like all fine tools, are a pleasure to use. Vocabulary does matter…at least to me. And my net worth, as a writer, speaker, reader, communicator—human—depends on how many "coins" are jangling in my jeans.

Vagabonde said...

I looked at some of your pictures along the river and they do look like paintings. The colors are so soft. We had snow in Atlanta a couple of weeks ago but it was not just a dusting – it was heavy, at least for us in the Deep South. It froze over and then the snow looked like meringue – you could walk on it without making a mark. I took many pictures to show the effect, here is the site: http://avagabonde.blogspot.com/2011/01/atlanta-snow-in-new-year.html. I had never seen any snow like this since I moved to the south, and that was in the 70s!

Rowan said...

I'm familiar with the work skiff meaning a type of boat but haven't heard it used about snow before - a light fall for me is a dusting. In the UK (and I'm sure in the US also) the use of some words can be very localized and a skifting may be Scottish and possibly Geordie but unknown further south. I know I use a few words which were common in Cheshire where I grew up but unknown to my husband who is a Lancashire lad from the next door county.
As for tracking, I would love to be able to read animal tracks, it's such a marvellous skill to be able to tell who was there and what they were doing.

Grizz………… said...

Vagabonde…

I've been reading and hearing, and looking at photos of the recent "big snow" in the South. And it was, indeed, a truly big snow for that region, probably an historic snow for many areas.

More years ago than I want to consider, I attended a school for a time in southern Tennessee, between Chattanooga and Knoxville, and witnessed a snow of 3-5 inches, along with its effects. Businesses closed, fire, police, and EMS workers had to be begged to come into work, and for all practical purposes, the world stopped. People simply abandoned their cars smack in the middle of the road, knocked on the nearest door, and took refuge for the next couple of days with total strangers! Of course we Yankees were all out driving around, enjoying the fact all classes had been canceled—and wondering what on earth all the fuss was about. As it happened, my cousin from Michigan was working in Atlanta, so I drove over to see her. The place was like a ghost town! Businesses by the hundreds were closed, and while a few downtown buildings were open, they were empty. My cousin worked for either Medicare or Met Life (can't recall which) in one of those huge towers downtown—and she and perhaps a dozen other northerners were the only ones in the building! We spent much of the day looking out the window watching the few cars on the streets below slide into each other. Drivers had absolutely no idea how to handle snow, and either tried to be overly cautious and drove too slow, or ignored the ice and treated it like dry concrete…zipping along until they tried to turn, at which point the laws of physics commandeered their vehicles.

My roommate at the time was from upper Saskatchewan, where snows are measured in feet rather than inches. He'd spent the last couple of months poking fun at those of us from Ohio and Michigan because we plowed and salted our roads, trying to keep the snow off. Up there, they just plow and pack—and raise their roadside mailboxes as necessary. It was a relief, there in Atlanta, getting to make fun of those who freaked out over what was to us a piddling snow. Perspective makes all the difference!

Grizz………… said...

Rowan…

Words and their meanings do vary from region-to-region, even when everyone is supposedly speaking the same language. The first time I ever visited friends in South Carolina, I was mystified when someone asked me to "carry them to a grocery store a few miles away." Huh? Were they asking to be picked up in my arms or slung over my shoulder? Nope. What they wanted was a ride, a lift, transportation—in a vehicle.

I never heard the word "skiff" applied to snow, either—but it sure appears in print and is spoken that way. And is listed as a variant to the word "skift" in dictionaries. Personally, I think it's just wrong. Skiff to me always means a boat. But in my growing up, "skift" was used all the time—and can still be heard in certain areas.

Language and phrases change. Gay no longer means cheerful, carefree, happy. In Old English or Anglo-Saxon, the word for a female fox in the northern dialect was "fixin." In the south of England it was "vixen," which is today's Standard English term.

I also regularly see written and hear people say, of a task that's difficult to do or complete, "It's a hard road to ho." The real phrase is "It's a hard row to hoe." But most of us are now several generations away from the farm, and know nothing about hoeing rows of beans or corn. What these urban-raised speakers do know about is roads, and are at least familiar, via rap and hip-hop, with the street term "ho" for a female practitioner of the world's oldest profession.

Skift was doubtless a word that didn't find its way into all corners of the English language…and is, alas, slowly fading from use.

Cicero Sings said...

I've always heard the term skiff of snow up here ... but skift makes sense, especially seeing as a skiff is a bloat ... so thanks for the enlightenment!

dgunter57 said...

I grew up in deep southeast Missouri, just north of the Bootheel. My mother used the term "skift," not "skiff." She was born in the Missouri Ozarks in 1920 and grew up there and in the Bootheel. Her mother was also out of the Ozarks. Their family was largely Scotch-Irish, Welsh, and Irish. Anyway, here in Seattle we had a little skift of snow earlier this week. I love the term, but I don't know anyone out here who uses it.

Grizz………… said...

dgunter57…

Your mother had her word right, and used it correctly. Don't ever let anyone persuade you differently. You can bet it came down through her Celtic heritage. Lots of folks in the Ozarks still know and use the word. I love the word, too…and so far as I'm concerned, the people who don't know it, or those who say "skiff" instead of "skift," are just linguistically uninformed. :-)

Hey, welcome to the riverbank! Or if you've just heretofore been a silent lurker, welcome to the comments! Hope you like what you found here on Riverdaze, and return often.

ST said...

We had a skift of snow last night here in KY. I learned that term from my mother, who grew up on the Cumberland Plateau in TN. When I moved to central KY, no one knew what I meant when I used the term skift. I'd never been able to find the word in a dictionary but have always been sure it is a genuine term. Also, the comment here about the Scotch-Irish word, blinky to mean soured milk, are confirmation to me. My grandmother would always declare the milk blinky if it was beginning to sour. But no one where I live now ever heard of blinky. And blinky is slightly different from soured; milk that's blinky is just on the verge of becoming soured.

Grizz………… said...

ST…

The fact of the matter is that words—language—comes with the people who settle into a place, reflecting their heritage. The Appalachians were settled before central Kentucky. Many of my own people, who came from eastern Kentucky, arrived there in time to fight in the French-Indian Wars. My ancestors were Irish, Scots, with only a single branch being English. They were in what became the United States in the early 1600s, and later, came down the Wilderness Road, as did, I expect, your mother's ancestors. Most of the early Appalachians were Scots-Irish, and "skift," and "blinky," were two of their words. You're exactly right about blinky milk being just barely starting to turn, but not fully soured. That's how I define it, too. I'll bet your mother also knew what a pone of biscuits or cornbread was, too. And maybe a poke for a bag or small sack.

I'm glad you found your way to this post, and tickled it settled the matter in your mind. Fear not…you're not making up words, you're just showing your heritage!

P.S. Hope you become a regular visitor here on the riverbank. You're always welcome.

Mark G. Goode said...

I happened on your site Grizz looking for something else. You brought me back to the simpler days of my youth in the out-of-doors of West Kentucky. But I was looking for a very similar word that attracted my attention from the 600 year old English poetic tale "Sir Gawain and the Green Knigt" from the original Middle English, not the translation populary read today. Therein in the last sentence of the first stanza is the word "Skyfted". Baswed on the often interchangability of "i" and "y" I thought, why not see if your definition applies. Whereas, truth be told, you don't acutually offer the definition (take no fault, please) but rather an assertion of what a skift is. So I will try with you for a better undertanding. As used 600 years ago in the poem, skyfted is directly translated to "alternated". Revelation! Sky - Alternation of light and dark. Skift - Alternation (alteration) of the snowy landscape (a little stretch there I know, but I hope you see it). Skype - Alternation of Modern Conversation. So I put to you that that this is the root, and would further suggest that one of the earliest references to Skyping is from this old poem. So here is the latter portion of that opening line to the poem:

And fer over the French flod, Felix Brutus
On mony bonkes ful brode Bretayn he settes,
Wyth wynne,
Where werre and wrake and wonder
Bi sythes has wont thereinne,
And oft bothe blysse and blunder,
Ful skete has skyfted synne.

Grizz………… said...

Mark G. Goode…

Was wonderful hearing from you—and I'm glad you found your way here to the riverbank whether by accident or design. Though both Mom and Dad were from eastern Kentucky (as were generations beforehand from at least Revolutionary times) I had one uncle on my mother's side who lived most of his adult life in Owensboro, and another, a minister, who lived in Rumsey and also Morganfield. I've spent quite a bit of time in that part of the state, and still have cousins scattered all over that end.

By the way, I have four or five translations of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight—among other epic poems and tales—on my shelves, and every time I read one I always end up chasing down interesting old words. Two or three pages can consume an hour.

The Scottish National Dictionary says this: 1) skift, 2) skiff: A slight or flying shower of rain or snow, skifting; a light fall or sprinkling of snow. 1) Also often skiff, rarely skiffing, skiffling: A light fall of snow (or, rarely, rain); a thin layer of snow or frost on the ground, or of ice on water. 2) A wisp of clouds.

This disagrees somewhat with the OED. And because I've used the word often over the years in my writings, and have had questions raised subsequently, I've taken a special interest in this fine old word…so whenever the opportunity presented itself, I've mulled this point over with various scholars who are particularly knowledgeable in the old Celtic languages and their roots…and they are adamant that it does not mean "to clothe yourself, an object, or a landscape afresh or anew; or to change the dress of—as in being akin to shift." And their standing point, which I tend to think is valid, is that while all the above could indeed be employed to describe the landscape following a light fall of snow, it's most frequent usage in all the old texts and manuscripts where it's found (simply because of the milder weather of the region) is to describe a light fall of rain. You could stretch the meaning and say snow clothes the land, and maybe even a skift of clouds (which is another way the term in its oldest usage appears) clothes the sky…but does a light rain clothe the earth?

So, while I can see how re. snow the connection might be inferred, I don't see that what we might nowadays say was a sprinkle of rain, could have in the old Scottish sense—and before to that root of the language—be descriptively accurate re. rain. A skift of rain does not alter or shift or change the landscape; but it does fall lightly.

However you make a well reasoned case otherwise. I would tend to agree with you that skyfted may be the root of today's Skyping. But I still see skift and skifting as being the action before the result—not the result itself. It's not the snow on the ground (even when I say "we received a skift of snow last night") but the weather before the alteration. Those I've talked with interpret it the same way and think, furthermore, that even in their own dictionaries, the adding of the part about frost and ice on water came later and was not true to the word's strictest meaning and oldest use.

Frankly, we'll probably never know for sure. But I like the way your mind works on this, the way you've made an honest interpolation of the facts. And you may be absolutely correct. Or I may be. Or maybe we both are, somehow.

I'm happy to get to kick this around today, or anytime…or talk about Kentucky, for that matter. Good conversation is always welcome—as are you to Riverdaze.

DBleau said...

I was reading "The Whistling Season," by Ivan Doig, and came across the following: "Damon continued to kick along in the disappointing snow on the road, as if somewhere under the thin skift there ought to exist a chance at an honest snowball."

I had neither seen nor heard the word before and decided to find the definition online, which led me to you site and your wonderful discussion of the word. It is, obviously, still used.

I will be adding your blog to my "Favorites" list.

Grizz………… said...

DBleau…

Hey, welcome to Riverdaze! I'm glad you found your way here and liked what you saw—and hope you visit often.

You aren't the first to follow the word "skift" to this blog. For whatever reason, it's a word that apparently intrigues folks enough that whenever they hear or read it, their curiosity and research sets them on a winding path that sooner or later leads them here. It's also a word which is misunderstood, misused, misspelled, mispronounced, and mis-attributed. Even a few dictionaries get the etymology wrong.

I've heard and used the word all my life, so this is all surprising news to me…but fun. I like digging around in words and their history, and have been amazed sometimes at the goofiness and foibles of human nature and often nationalism or prejudice I've encountered.

Skift is, indeed, still used, and in some parts of the country, fairly wildly used. And it should be because there's not other word which carries exactly the same shade of meaning. I value precision in speech, even if I don't always practice it.

Anyway, again…glad you found your way here. Please know you're always welcome.

P.S. Haven't read "The Whistling Season," though I've read and enjoyed several of his books. Given Doig's long, and deep roots to the West and rural people, I'm not the least surprised you encountered "skift" in one of his paragraphs.