Weather: Forget Eskimo snow - here are 139 Hawaiian rain words

A hurricane has been raging off the coast of America; a typhoon is causing havoc in Japan; the first autumn breezes are wafting through the north of England. Where does all this wind come from?

Following a piece last week on "raining cats and dogs" and other strange expressions for heavy rain, several readers have written from Wales to tell us about Mae hi'n bwrw hen wragedd a ffyn - raining old women and walking sticks. R Huw Oakley adds the Spanish expression llover a cntaros - "raining by the pitcher-full". He also asks: "If it is true that the Eskimos have the greatest number of words for snow and ice, who are the world champions where rain is concerned?"

Well, Mr Oakley, I am delighted you asked that, because it provides another excuse to mention a book that I carry around with me at all times: Harold Winfield Kent's Treasury of Hawaiian Words in One Hundred and One Categories, which shows that Hawaiian is at least a major contender for the world championship in rain words.

Two of Mr Kent's 101 categories are relevant to the topic, "Rains: Names" and "Rains: Glossary", the former listing rains whose names "make a specific reference to their well-known characteristics, such as topographical area or an association with a particular kind of cloud or wind", and the latter describing "different kinds of rains and a few terms dealing with mist". There are 52 distinct items in the first list and 87 in the second.

As with Eskimo snow, however, many of the words are variations on a single theme. For example, the glossary section includes the basic word noe (mist or fine rain) as well as noe kolo (small fine rain of the mountains), noenoe (fine mist, fog or rain) and noe 'ula (red-eyed from going out in the rain).

Then there is paka (raindrops), pakaku (rain falling in large drops), pakapaka (a heavy shower of large raindrops or the spattering noise that such drops make on a hollow or dry substance), paka ua (raindrops making a noise as they spatter on dry leaves), paki'o (showery rain), and paki'oki'o (to rain in short showers and often). And who is to say whether pipinoke (to rain continuously) has the same root as paka or not?

If you wish to boost the numbers, you could even consider kilikili noe and kilikili oe, both of which are listed as meaning "fine, misty rain" as separate words, though clearly the subtle distinction between then eluded Mr Kent.

One does get the feeling, however, that the Hawaiians sometimes go a little too far in their attempts to distinguish one rain from another. It is all very well having nahua for the "fine rain that accompanies the north-east trade winds along the northern part of Maui", but do we really need anything so specific as ua-pa'u-pili (the rain that moistens the pili grass at Lahaina)?

Oddly enough, though, they do not seem to have an expression for "raining cats and dogs", or even Welsh women and walking sticks - unless you count he ua lanipali, which means a very heavy shower. Its literal meaning, however, is "shower reaching to heaven".

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