'Wintry Mix,' the Weather Phrase People Love to Hate, Except, It Seems, in the Media

Thank the National Weather Service Web site for the spread of
Thank the National Weather Service Web site for the spread of "wintry mix," a term for a melange of sleet, freezing drizzle and snow. (2007 Photo By Bill O'leary -- The Washington Post)
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By John Kelly
Thursday, January 15, 2009

Break out the champagne. This week marked the 13th anniversary of the first time the expression "wintry mix" was published in The Washington Post.

The front-page story -- Jan. 13, 1996 -- was about a snowstorm that dumped six inches of wet snow atop two feet of powder that had fallen the previous week. It wasn't until the article's 25th paragraph that the phrase appeared. Perhaps fearing that readers wouldn't know what she was talking about, reporter Nancy Lewis felt compelled to put it in quotation marks and define it: " 'wintry mix' -- sleet, freezing drizzle and freezing rain."

Is there any Washingtonian today who doesn't know what wintry mix is? It's every person's least-favorite meteorological snack food, precipitation that can include a succession of nasty things -- freezing drizzle, freezing rain, snow. It's something the United Nations would ban if it could, like land mines or cluster bombs.

The expression isn't really new. Andrew "Woody" Woodcock, a forecaster in the National Weather Service's Baltimore/

Washington office, remembers hearing it as a boy in Connecticut: "When you grow up in New England, you're given a flannel coat and the etymologic key to that term," he said. But it's only in the past decade or so that it has gone viral. After its Post debut, "wintry mix" ticked along rather modestly, appearing in the paper only one or two times a year until 2002, when it appeared five times. In 2003, it appeared eight times, and though it's had its ups and downs, "wintry mix" is clearly on the rise. Last year it appeared in a dozen stories in The Post.

Why the explosion?

We can thank the Web. About six years ago, the Weather Service was revamping its http://weather.gov Web site, creating what it calls its point-and-click interface. This is where users see a five-day forecast depicted as nine little icons. Beneath each icon is a word or phrase: "Cold," "Partly Cloudy," "Chance Snow."

The problem was that the unpleasant combination of "Freezing Rain, Snow" wouldn't fit in the allotted space. Nor would "Sleet, Freezing Drizzle, Snow." A programmer in the Weather Service's Kansas City, Mo., office wrote software that generated the words "wintry mix" whenever such conditions were called for. Since then, the software has been rolled out at forecast offices around the country.

The media, which often base their broadcasts and articles on Weather Service forecasts, helped spread it. "Wintry mix" had arrived.

I sort of like "wintry mix." It sounds poetic. But I sense a backlash against the term. Channel 4 weather guru Bob Ryan isn't a fan. "Maybe it sounds like a cop-out," he told me. "You don't know whether it will be sleet or snow or freezing rain, so you just call it a 'wintry mix.' It's a nebulous thing."

Bob said he discourages WRC's weatherfolk from using the term except in longer-range forecasts. Anything sooner than three or four days, and they should know what's going to fall.

"It's a good snapshot, but it's not going to cover everything," agreed Andy Horvitz of the Weather Service's Office of Climate, Water and Weather Services. "It's still important to find details of the entire forecast, to read the discussions, to find out the confidence in what kind of forecast is likely to occur."

The great challenge meteorologists face is finding the right balance between detail and understandability. Added to that is the ultimate unknowability of weather. Every forecast is an exercise in probability: This might happen, but it might not. (A 2006 report published by the National Academies was titled "Completing the Forecast: Communicating Uncertainty for Better Decisions Using Weather and Climate Forecasts." The report's recommendation for the weather community: Talk more about uncertainty.)

You might not like "wintry mix," but you must respect it. Like an infectious microbe, it has caught on -- even if only with the media. The same can't be said of every weather term. Meteorologists have tried to come up with a summer equivalent to "wind chill." One entry was "humiture," but it didn't really take. "Heat index" did instead. Now AccuWeather has patented the term "RealFeel."

Will "RealFeel" become as common as "wintry mix"? Somehow I doubt it.

What bugs you about the way we talk about the weather? Weigh in during my online chat, tomorrow at noon at http://www.washingtonpost.com/discussions. And check out my blog: http://voices.washingtonpost.com/commons. My e-mail: kellyj@washpost.com.

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