gritting, salting and blizzards

[I started this back when it was snowing...then the term started.  Eek.  Thanks to my new Twitter-followers for their recollections on grit and sand.]

A couple of Americans have remarked to me about BrE speakers' use of grit as a verb in snowy contexts like these (from a single article in the local newspaper):
Hospitals across Sussex were inundated with patients over the weekend who had broken limbs after falling on ungritted pavements.  [Ed. note: the weekend broke limbs?]
Dozens of people contacted The Argus to condemn the lack of gritting which has left many elderly people trapped in their homes.  [Ed. note: did they also condemn the lack of a comma on a non-restrictive relative clause?]
A Brighton and Hove City Council spokesman said all the authority's refuse and recycling staff were being diverted to gritting roads and pavements today.
Now, I don't believe that this use of grit is solely BrE, but in the snowy Northeastern US, one talks about salting the roads--which may include some sand--or less frequently of sanding the roads--which usually includes some salt or other de-icing agent.  In addition to sand, ash and cinders are (or at least have been) commonly used.  The "sand" that's used may be more coarse material, like the grit used in the UK.  And while gritters are used in the UK to spread grit, salters and sanders are used in northern north America for the same thing.

I come from a place where we get to talk about lake-effect snow and (orig. AmE) blizzards a lot.
And when we use the term blizzard back home, we don't mean a piddly 6 cm (2.4 inches) of snow like my local UK paper does.  It turns out that the word may be common to AmE and BrE now, but the meaning is not.  From Wikipedia:
In the United States, the National Weather Service defines a blizzard as sustained winds or frequent gusts reaching or exceeding 35 mph (56 km/h) which lead to blowing snow and cause visibilities of ¼ mile (or 400 m) or less, lasting for at least 3 hours. Temperature is not taken into consideration when issuing a blizzard warning, but the nature of these storms is such that cold air is often present when the other criteria are met.[1] Temperatures are generally below 0 °C (32 °F).
According to Environment Canada, a winter storm must have winds of 40 km/h (25 mph) or more, have snow or blowing snow, visibility less than 500 feet (150 m), a wind chill of less than −25 °C (−15 °F), and all of these conditions must last for 3 hours or more before the storm can be properly called a blizzard.

Many European countries, such as the UK, have a lower threshold: the Met Office defines a blizzard as "moderate or heavy snow" combined with a mean wind speed of 30 mph (48 km/h) and visibility below 650 feet (200 m).

Of course, even a little snow in a place like southern England (or the southern US, for that matter) grinds the place to a halt.  I've had three 'snow days' from work so far this year, and we've never had accumulation of more than a few inches.  But not only are snow (AmE) plows/(BrE) ploughs rarer than hen's teeth here, but no one has a (possibly AmE) snow shovel, few have appropriate footwear (attention: (BrE) wellies [AmE: rubber boots] are not snow boots!) and almost no one knows how to drive on icy roads.  So, we can't really blame the victims of these snows for their inability to deal with them--though that didn't stop me from less-than-sympathetically exclaiming in response to the laceration on my friend's face and talk of the bruise on another's (BrE) bum: "You people don't know how to walk on snow!"  I have since spent every outdoor moment convinced that this comment is going to come and almost literally bite me on the (AmE) ass/(BrE) arse, landing me with a broken coccyx or worse.

Final reflection: I can't believe that I just had to invent a 'weather' tag for the blog in response to this post.  I'm in England!  I'm supposed to be talking about the weather at least 74% of the time.  I hope they don't find out and revoke my citizenship.


  1. "The English have N words for snow."
    I wish that anybody who used the original snowclone could come read this to realize just how complicated snow vocabulary is for English.

  2. I grew up in Detroit, I spent three years in Boston, and consider Salt Lake City winters mild - in a state with the motto "Greatest Snow On Earth" on license plates.

    Detroit and SLC salt, Boston grits, my grandfather collected ashes to grit winter roads in Windsor Ontario during the Depression. And I wear YakTraxwhen it's icy.

    I do feel sorry for the folks in Britain, and the Deep South who have had to deal with snow and cold without adequate boots or coats, heating or plows.

  3. Interesting! What about "galoshes" as an AmE term for Wellies? Also, I think this is the first time I've seen "grind" used in an active form in this context. I though it was the place doing the grinding (to a halt), not the weather?

  4. @Alex Francis: I thought about 'galoshes' and overshoes, but then I looked up 'galoshes' and saw that it (traditionally, at least) refers to over-boots. And then I reali{s/z}ed that that was indeed what I wore as a child. (Also (AmE) rubbers--i.e. rubber overshoes. Haven't seen those in (a)eons.) Do you use 'galoshes' to mean something that you wear with just socks underneath?

    The 'grind' is more than just active, it's causative. I can grind my teeth down to nubs, so can't the snow grind us to a halt? Maybe not...worked when I was writing it.

  5. Zhoen: Salt Lake City at a mere 1.3 km above sea level is lowland for Utah, much of which is above 2 km and some of it above 4 km. The snow referred to on the license plates is, of course, ski resort snow; most ski resort summits are above 3 km.

  6. Whenever I think of gritting in BrE, the first thing that comes to mind is from the first episode of Red Dwarf, when Lister awakens to find the whole crew turned into powder. He talks to Holly, the computer, who informs him that one of the piles is Christine Kochanski, whom Lister had wanted to get together with. Lister laments this, and Holly's response is, "Well, she won't do you much good now. Not unless it snows and you need something to grit the path with."

  7. The snow in Oxfordshire in the last few weeks has been unlike anything I remember in the UK, and much closer to our experience in Norway last February: deep, compacted snow, little ice, etc. No wonder we have been unprepared.

  8. I'd define a blizzard as "unable to see your hand in front of your face". Anything less severe than that is just normal.

    But I did grow up on top of a hill in North Wales: tyres changed in winter, snow chains to hand, shovel and sack of grit in the boot of the car; local farmers had snow ploughs attachments for their tractors so even minor roads could be cleared.

    Can't understand what the fuss is about a very moderate amount of snow. Tho' I'd concede that winters have been milder of recent years.

  9. BrE does use 'snowshovel', but much more commonly in places where we get snow regularly. In Sheffield (hilly city in northern England) the word is used, because the shovels are as well.

  10. My (Minnesotan) other half almost dislocated something laughing the first time he heard about 'blizzards' dumping half an inch of snow on Kent.

    I was surprised (after blogging about the snow) that I hadn't picked up before on the different words for sliding down a snowy hillside. Some of my American readers questioned what a 'sledge' and 'sledging' was although they did work it out from the context. (has this been covered elsewhere on SbaCL? I did look but could find neither a reference to it, not a search box)

  11. @townmouse: no, that one hasn't come up yet...

  12. My understanding (which seems to be borne out by the official definitions you list) is that a blizzard is nothing to do with the total amount of snow falling, but rather the wind conditions associated with it that lead to lack of visibility. So one could have a very brief blizzard which led to only a thin dusting of snow. I thought it was interesting that while the US definition lists a higher wind speed, it also has a higher visibility. In the UK it's not a blizzard until visibility is reduced to 200m rather than the 500m for the US. So I don't think it's quite fair to suggest that we exaggerate our weather conditions in the UK!

  13. I find it funny that the US is so rigid in their weather terminology (I'm originally from Russia), even outside of the National Weather Service's official products (where I suppose it helps statistics and such). For example, heaven forfend the newscaster says it's hot hen the temperature is below 90F (32C). Similar strictures on cold/cool and mild/warm. I'd think in the spring it can be hot when it's 80 degrees (27C) and in the summer, it ca be cold when it's 60 (15C). One often hears about "blizzard-like conditions". I mean isn't it simple? It's hot when you feel hot when going outside. You know a blizzard when you see it. What exactly is the problem?

    On the other hand, some words cross over from technical meaning to general use to the point that their broader meaning is no longer considered correct. Hurricanes, for example.

  14. Eh, don't be hard on yourself for mocking people for not being able to deal with winter weather. That's how you console yourself to the weather you grew up with. At least your not most of the people I went to university with, Ottawans mocked Torontonians, people from the prairies mocked people from eastern Canada and everyone mocked Vancouverites. So anyway, when someone asks you what a blizzard really is, just mention the Buffalo blizzard of '01, when 210 cm fell on the city.

    On the other hand my poor roommate, a Chicagoan born and bred, took a spill on the ice two days ago and got a mild concussion as well some nasty scrapes on his face.

  15. "Hospitals across Sussex were inundated with patients over the weekend who had broken limbs after falling on ungritted pavements. [Ed. note: the weekend broke limbs?]"

    No, surely if it had meant that, it would have said "the weekend which had broken limbs...." Weekend, being neutral, takes "which" rather than "who". I don't read it as ambiguous at all - does anybody else?

  16. I just read an interesting article in Earth magazine about how US and Canadian cities are slowly moving away from salting because of the environmental concerns. Maybe we'll get back to gritting.

  17. @ros: but the US definition requires that the conditions persist for 3 hours--which accounts for the usual accumulation of snow in US blizzards. The Met Office (UK) has no such time requirement. So, five seconds of that low visibility, and apparently we have a British blizzard! :) Most US blizzards will have points of lower visibility over the course of those three hours.

    @mrsredboots--you're absolutely right about the lack of ambiguity in the Argus article. I was probably tired and looking for a fight at that point.

    @elizabeth: during my research for this, I read several things referring to one or more studies that showed that sanding/gritting did absolutely no good in improving road safety. It's hard to believe, given how much I think it helped me in getting down the hill from my house. But now that the snow has melted, we have hills covered with fine particles to slip on.

  18. @other Elizabeth
    Hee. I was at a party a few weeks ago talking to guy who had just moved back to Chicago from Portland. He was saying that he went to a store there to get salt for his stairs and when he asked if he could buy some for that purpose he was told that it was against city rule to use salt because of environmental concerns. So he came back the next day to buy a bag of salt, but this time said it was to soften his water and they sold it to him no problem.

  19. Having never seen the "official" definitions, I probably would have just assumed that a blizzard involved heavy snowfall over a fairly short period of time, and maybe high winds. But then, I've spent my entire life in northern Pennsylvania and upstate New York, and probably it would take something like the aforementioned Buffalo storm (that 210 cm fell in one week) or the Oswego snow of 2007 (330 cm in two weeks) to trigger the word "blizzard." It would have to be exceptional.

  20. So how exacly does one walk on snow then?

    So I can tell all my elderly neighbours who were trapped in the hilly outlying Brighton estates after the buses declared us a no-go zone.

    A friend of mine who has recently relocated to Vancouver has been telling me about their snow which has a completely difference quality and consisitency to the kind we usually get over here. In the mornings they have to 'shovel the walk' which I belive is CaE for clearing the path.

  21. @Solo: AmE speakers 'shovel the walk' after it snows too. That's not about different snow consistency from that here, though, it's about the availability of snow shovels.

    The elderly fall on both sides of the pond, but I'd expect those accustomed to snow do a little better. My mother (whom I shouldn't call elderly--especially if she's reading this) fell a couple of years ago because of a patch of ice below some new snow. It's the people my age falling all over the place that got me--but then you probably consider us elderly.

    Anyhow, how to walk on snow is not something that's readily explained--because most of us don't know how we do it. It's like walking like a Londoner or a New Yorker (different cities apparently have identifiable walks--pickpockets recogni{s/z}e the out-of-towners that way). You just do it, and aren't really aware that there are other possibilities.

    However, in my observations on the streets of Brighton, I came to the conclusion that the poor snow-walkers walked when they should have trudged. I think it's also something to do with where you put your cent{er/re} of gravity.

    Here's an attempt at the Guardian.

    And here's an attempt from someone in Seattle:

    - Along sidewalks, look for darkened or shiny patches and avoid them. These are ice patches and the most likely spot for walkers to slip.
    - Try to stay on snow, where you can maintain easy traction. If you need to walk off sidewalks and pathways, along grass or even the fringe of a roadway to avoid icy patches, do so.
    - Walk with short and relatively quick steps along thin, hard snow or ice. Slips happen when you firmly plant your foot on slippery surfaces. Shorter, quicker steps reduces the leverage that enables slips.
    - Keep your weight leaning slightly forward: You would much rather fall forward than backward.
    - Keep your arms out so that, in case you do fall, you can save you face and head from an unpleasant landing.
    - Watch the ground and, akin to a chess player, try to think a few steps ahead. Look ahead for icy patches and try to plan your next steps so you avoid encountering them or minimize the steps you need to take through them.

    I didn't even mention snow-blowers and the incidence of shovel(l)ing-induced heart attacks...

  22. I will attempt to follow those useful instructions while trudging through Duluth, although it doesn't mention what to do if the snow is up to your waist. :)
    Here if you don't shovel your own section of sidewalk/pavement, the council fines you, which is no bad thing. It does confuse my in-laws a wee bit when I tell them I was 'shovelling the pavement'...I think they imagine me resolutely working my way across the road, spade in hand...

  23. When reading this article, I immediately remembered a humorous compilation that I had seen before -- I have managed to dig it up and here's the part on weather (BrE - AmE):
    cool - cold
    cold - freezing
    snow - snow storm
    drizzle - rain storm
    rain - flood warning
    light breeze - wind storm
    windy - hurricane
    foreign weather - sunshine
    (Taken from here.)

  24. @Spanish Cow: Here in the UK you're supposed to clear the paths and so on on your own land (in your garden), but if you clear the public pavement and someone slips and falls over, they can sue you. So people don't tend to clear beyond their own borders, relying on the council to do the rest.

  25. "if you clear the public pavement and someone slips and falls over, they can sue you"

    I'm not sure that they can. It has recently been suggested that they might be able to, which is not quite the same thing - but in a paranoid, "risk averse" age it's a good enough excuse for doing nothing (always handy to have an argument for inaction!).

  26. Thanks for the links. It basically amounts to: Be careful and try not to slip on the slippy bits. But I'm far more likely to heed such advice when the Grauniad tells me so.

    I didn't mean paths need clearing in North America because the consistency was different, they were two unrelated thoughts. I did think our last batch was a lot more like the type of snow I'd expect to see across the water though- much more dry and powdery therefore far easier to walk on and better suited to snow men/balls/angels.

    That's a very American thing, snow angels. Is there a post about them? I could probably look for myself. So, snow blowers? A hot air blower for moving snow with? It doesn't sound very useful unless the snow has settled very lightly indeed. Or is it more of an industrial hairdryer that melts the offending precipitation. That might have a similar effect to that found recently when hapless Brits poured boiling water over their pathways to clear them. Result? Utterly unpredictably it was perfectly camoflagued sheet ice.

    I say sheet ice, it was actually slightly curved on top, which is far worse in my opinion. Is there a word for that kind of surface? Not quite lvel but almost utterly without friction. If anyone knows it's you lot.

  27. Oh and if someone slips on your path because you haven't cleared it and it's either a public right of way or they have a legal reason to be on your property (postman for instance) then they can sue.

  28. P.S. Of course you're not elderly. That's the term for old people who your [i.e. my] parents think are old.

  29. @Solo: no heat involved in a snow-blower...they just move snow. Like a leaf-blower in that way but either pushed like a lawn-mower or ridden like a ride-on mower/little tractor.

  30. "Oh and if someone slips on your path because you haven't cleared it and it's either a public right of way or they have a legal reason to be on your property (postman for instance) then they can sue."

    Well, they can try, but surely the onus will then be on them to prove that clearing the path made matters worse than leaving it uncleared?

    Until they were repealed as part of the 1982 Civic Government (Scotland) Act, most Scottish towns and cities had bye laws (BrE) [I think the AmE equivalent is "local ordinances"?] requiring citizens to clear the pavements outside their homes or business. I for one wish that were still the case!

  31. So going back to the original linguistic point, what do Americans call grit in the literal sense, in or outside the context of snow? Ie, "sharp" (non-rounded), abrasive, crushed particles coarser than sand but finer than gravel, which is small pebbles. Is there no other word than sand or dirt? Is "sand" a more specific concept in BrE?

    Grit is what you get when rock is ground down by whatever mechanism; you often find it on roads at all times of year. You could get grit in your eye or the mechanism of something such as a bike chain or brakes without going anywhere near places sand is found (deserts, beaches, sandpits etc). Unlike sand it's not something you ever experience with pleasure; it has its uses in winter but is usually a nasty thing, and perhaps feels more like the coarser cousin of dust than of sand.

    I can't see anything in dictionaries to imply a (usu)BrE/AmE difference in "grit" but that doesn't prove much.

    1. Visiting this thread years later specifically for this issue.

      IME, in most of the US "grit" is rarely used as a noun. There's "gritty" as an adjective, "200-grit (or whatever) sandpaper", and a few set phrases like "grit in the gears", but not really "grit" by itself. (With a possible exception for subject-area jargon like "bird grit".)

      Instead we have "(adjective) sand" (fine, coarse, playground, etc.) or "(adjective) gravel" (pea, fine, all-purpose, bird, etc.) And then there are pebbles and crushed rock, which I would take to be a bit larger.

      I noticed this difference while listening to a diorama maker's podcast that showed what I would have called "sand" or "fine gravel" and referred to it as "grit", which struck me as entirely foreign to my idiolect.

  32. So thinking about what I wrote there, grit in the non-road sense can be just as fine as sand, but it's "nasty" disruptive sand that doesn't lie around visibly in attractive drifts but lurks waiting to abrade things. No wonder a dish called "grits" sounds so unappealing.

  33. @Zhoen: I live in Utah, but grew up in Idaho and Wyoming where winters are much more severe. I joke that Utah is the tropics. However, 20 miles east of my house in the valleys east of the Wasatch Mountains it's much colder and snowier. So it's not just in the ski resorts that Utah gets good snow.

    We do get good storms, however. In the 80's we had a 3 day storm with both falling snow and strong winds. When our town was finally able to plow a single lane through the streets, the snow drifts were higher than the school buses.

    For me, one of the major points of walking in snow is that you keep your feet under your body center and fairly flat on the ground. So again, smaller steps.

  34. Joe1959, I said they can sue if you don't clear the path and they have a legal right to be on it. :)

    I think it's all very silly anyway, if no one's bothering to clear the pavements why complain about a few extra feet of icy terrain to navigate?

  35. @Harry Campbell: AmE can certainly call the material 'grit'. But we don't use it much with reference to abrasives used to go on ice. The 'grit' they use around here is usually not just small particles of rock/dirt, but also salt, and the 'sand' used in the US often has all sorts of things mixed in--so neither of the words in reference to snow/ice traction refers _exactly_ and _just_ to the natural material.

  36. @MrsRedboots

    That's a myth, I'm afraid! I'd never come across it before this winter but I've heard a LOT of people saying it this year and it just isn't true. The Institute for Health and Safety are telling people it's okay to shovel, even if they are then being misreported. And even the Association for Personal Injury Lawyers, who you'd assume would want to find any reason to sue, said that you do not invite any extra liability that wouldn't have existed had you done nothing and left the snow on the ground. The only circumstance in which you might invite a claim was if you acted completely unreasonably, and somehow created a new latent hazard that had not existed before your actions.

    So next time it snows, no excuse not to get out and get shovelling!

  37. here in Ohio, USA, our top court held that people accept the risks inherent in traveling in ice and snow, and the property owner can't be encumbered with laws to protect visitors from all risk. courts here have also found owners liable if their shoveling is determined to increase the risk rather than decrease it. still all big cities and many towns do have laws requiring snow removal, though they have little means of enforcement.

    cincinnati, ohio, prepares for snow before it arrives by spreading some sort of brine solution they call "beet juice."

    snow shovels here also include a ones with a concave blade they call a "snow pusher" which i'm sure you all can imagine how they work.

  38. @Elizabeth: to get salt for his stairs …

    That stairs/steps thing there, I couldn't work out at first, as a BrE speaker, why your friend would be putting salt on his stairs, which to me would always be INSIDE the house.

  39. I live in the southern US where we mostly get ice, not snow."Black ice," really clear,is very hard to spot. It's embarrassing to someone who has lived in a snowier area to watch major cities slam closed with 1/2 inch of snow, but the huge increase in accidents justifies this. We sand, not salt; I wasn't aware that de-icing sand had any salt.

  40. "- Keep your weight leaning slightly forward: You would much rather fall forward than backward."

    I was always taught very firmly that while you lean forwards instinctively, should you fall you should try to move your butt under you and SIT.

    Except for a few notable spills when I couldn't manage this (I was a very klutzy kid and it took me until I was grown and then some to overcome it) I've always done that and it works about as well as you can hope.

  41. Its a late comment - but we really did have a blizzard once in Brighton, on 8th December 1967. Visibility was very low at the worst of it, possibly less than 10m, we really couldn't see a lighted shop window on one side of the street from the other. Actual whiteout briefly.

    I know, I was there, in Woodingdean, with my brother, trying to walk to a friend's house from school - we knew we wouldn't be able to make it back to our own house.

    I suspect that these days they wouldn't have made us leave the school - though to be fair conditions were so bad that the teachers might not have realised how bad.

  42. It's very late to comment, but I don't see why the Met Office definition is weaker than the US one.

    The Met Office says mean wind speed of 30mph; the US will accept frequent gusts of 35mph, which would probably be a lower mean speed than 30mph. The Met Office say 200m visibility, the US definition says 250m.

    Obviously the British use the term 'blizzard' for situations that in Buffalo would be described as 'isn't it a nice day for January', but apart from specifying a minimum duration the official US definitions seem weaker if anything.

  43. The UK definition doesn't involve persisting for three hours.

  44. That's one of the things I really miss about Upstate NY, real snow every winter, snow you wade in up to your knees and further. Isn't Syracuse supposed to be the world's snowiest city because of the lake effect?

    At the time you were posting this, Lynne, there was a satellite photograph circulating on the internet showing the whole of Britain covered in white. Well, not quite all. This little corner, where it seldom snows much, showed through as one patch of green and brown!

  45. The worst hazard here in Britain is the couple of inches of snow that melts and then freezes hard. This is a nightmare compared to which walking on packed snow is a delight (packed snow seems to me easier to negotiate than stretches of pavement that have been cleared.

    The callout reports of the Lake District mountain rescue teams are instructive. While the high fells aren't exactly Dinali (the highest fails to make 1,000 m), lives are lost on them with depressing regularity especially in bad winter weather (anybody who says Britain doesn't have proper blizzards has never been caught on Sharp Edge in a snowstorm). Mostly it's people who aren't properly dressed ("boots" in this context does not mean those made by Ugg, as too many victims thought) or properly equipped (the GPS app on your iPhone is no substitute for map and compass and the ability to use them).

  46. One of your much more recent posts sent me back to this article, and we just had a blizzard a couple weeks ago in the Black Hills of South Dakota. So, to give some real world context to the official US Weather Service definition, our recent blizzard started with freezing drizzle which turned to snow by Friday night. The winds kicked up overnight Friday and continued Saturday into the evening, with gusts between 45 and 60 mph, so lasting close to 24 hours. We got about 15 inches of snow in town, which is heavier than a lot of storms, but because of the wind it drifted, leaving some areas bare to the ground and others with deep drifts.

    While the official description may call for only 3 hours, I honestly can't really remember a blizzard that hasn't lasted at least 6 or 7, and 12 to 24 is far more common. And all blizzards have gusting winds, 35 must be the speed that is expected the wind will be unlikely to drop below, but the wind speeds will be very uneven throughout with numerous gusts above this.

    For the record, I'm in Rapid City, South Dakota.

  47. BrE When we get enough snow in the U.K. to cause disruption, the government and local authorities are always criticised for being unprepared (not enough snowploughs, not enough grit (which contains a fair percentage of rock salt)). The criticisms are usually countered with statistics that give the most probable requirements for grit, snowploughs etc. + reasonable margin for error, and the cost to the public in maintaining more than these levels. Does anyone else see the parallel here with “normal” numbers of hospital ventilators compared to the numbers needed during the Covid19 pandemic.


The book!

View by topic



AmE = American English
BrE = British English
OED = Oxford English Dictionary (online)