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What does “glacier” mean?

James Thurber taught us that the world is divided into two kinds of people: those who think the world is divided into two kinds of people and those who don’t. I belong to the former group, believing that the world is divided into two kinds of people: those who think words are interesting and those who don’t. Again, I belong to the former sub-group. If you belong to one of the other sub-groups, you might want to read something other than this article, because an obsession with words can be tiresome.

One of my jobs recently has been to coordinate the compilation of a glaciological glossary for the International Association of Cryospheric Sciences. The Glossary of Mass-balance and Related Terms is likely to be of interest mainly to specialists, but one of the words we had to define was “glacier”. We had a lot of fun with this, it being the sort of thing about which specialists find it easy to disagree. But where did the word come from?

The Oxford English Dictionary says that a glacier is “a large accumulation or river of ice …”, and quotes William Windham and Peter Martel as the first persons to use the word in English, in a letter printed in 1744 in which they describe excursions from Geneva to the glaciers around Chamonix in 1741 and 1742. They spelt it glaciere, apparently conforming to the spelling and pronunciation of the local inhabitants. The French speakers of Savoy seem to have been undecided about whether the noun should be feminine or masculine. In modern French a glacier is a glacier and a glacière is an icehouse or cold cellar. That the English word comes from French will not surprise anyone, but where did the French, or the Savoyards, get it from?

The word may first have appeared in print in 1574, in Josias Simler’s De Alpibus Commentarius: “… it is called Gletscher by our people”. Gletscher is one of the words for glacier in modern German, and it looks like a fairly obvious borrowing from a French or Italian dialect of the Alps. The modern Italian word is ghiaccaio. The Trésor de la langue française in my university’s library tells me that glacier or glacer is first recorded from the west of Switzerland in 1332.

You can read Windham and Martel if you can find a library with a subscription to Eighteenth Century Collections Online. It is an intriguing insight into the enquiring outdoor 18th-century mind, and is the first serious work of glaciology ever written in English. One of the intriguing things about it is that the authors’ understanding of glacier has all the ingredients that we settled on a few months ago as essential for our 21st-century glossary definition: low temperature, frozen water on land and, most intriguing of all, motion: “the Glaciere is not level, and all the Ice has a Motion from the higher Parts towards the lower”.

Windham and Martel were relying for these facts on the local inhabitants, who not only understood that the ice itself “has a motion”, but knew from their own observation that the glaciers were extending progressively further into the valleys. We have the opposite problem in the 21st century.

So the idea that a glacier is ice in motion has a long history. I suspect that the idea goes back long before 1332, to the unknown first coiner of the word. The glac- with which it begins is from glacies, the Latin for ice, but the ending -ier is more suggestive. Speakers of French have made heavy use of this suffix. The Trésor de la langue française takes several pages to list all the work it does, but a leading part of its job is to describe the idea of carrying or delivering. Just as a pear tree is a poirier or carrier of pears, so it seems reasonable to guess that a glacier is a deliverer of ice.

We like to think that our new Glossary of Mass-balance and Related Terms is an up-to-the-minute summary of glaciological thinking, but this kind of thinking has evidently been going on for longer than we are apt to think.

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One comment to What does “glacier” mean?

  1. Your opening quote about two kinds of people is from Robert Benchley. James Thurber said: “You can fool too many people too much of the time.”

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