Hot new words for the weather? That's a sticky one

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THIS TIME last week it was so hot that everyone was grumbling, except the woman behind me in the queue at the Bradford-on-Avon fish stall on Thursday who said out loud: 'Well, I'm not complaining about the heat - I'm really enjoying it while it's here]', which caused immediate silence among other queuers, who were bandying around words like 'close' and 'humid' and 'airless'.

The trouble is that there aren't many other words like 'close' and 'humid' and 'airless'. Our vocabulary for describing heat in Britain is pretty limited, probably because we get so little chance to use it.

Private Eye's 'Phew, what a scorcher]' mock headline is one of the few phrases that the English have at their disposal, though I can't remember the women at the Bradford-on-Avon fish stall using either 'phew' or 'scorcher'.

That was a week ago. Since then the dry weather has broken and we have had thunder, lightning, rain and flooding. It is still pretty hot, but it's got pretty damp, and I wouldn't be surprised if that woman at the fish stall this week isn't saying: 'Well, I don't care what anyone says - I love this wetness]' And people will still be looking askance at her, because you're not meant to love wetness in this country, you're just meant to welcome it as an overdue visitor.

We tend to talk about rain in the same way as we talk about the impending visit of a plumber or builder - as a desirable but somewhat feared event. 'We could really do with it . . . The sooner the better. Don't know what will happen if it doesn't come soon . . . ' and then afterwards: 'Well, we finally got it, but goodness, what a mess] Not sure I'd like to go through with that again]' One of the Radio 4 folk on the Today programme got it about right this week when he said: 'And the weather today is going to be unpleasant, I'm afraid - unless, of course, you like rain.'

Like rain? The whole country has been gasping for it for weeks. But he's right. You can gasp for something without actually liking it. You know that when the rain finally comes, it's not going to be the cool, controlled fall you want, like a bathroom shower that miraculously obeys the knobs - it's going to be the hot, thick stuff that makes a noise on the roof, knocks flowers over and splashes so hard that it leaves dirty marks 12 inches up from the ground on walls. And as it is coming along hand-in- hand with thunder and lightning, it's going to be unpleasantly warm and humid, which is why I saw on a BBC weather map this week a word I don't think I'd ever seen on one before: STICKY . . .

I wonder if the weather people sit around auditioning new words for the weather picture. I wonder if 'sticky' has been working its way up through the ranks, waiting for promotion to the screen. Maybe 'close' and 'muggy' and 'clammy' and 'sweaty' are all waiting in the wings to come on and have their chance to become star words on the weather map. If so, it's about time they got a few more words in to describe rain, because considering how much rain we see, we have oddly few good words to describe it. 'Squall' and 'drizzle' and steady rain' and 'downpour', that's about it.

But I can remember a Radio 3 programme about Japan in which it was revealed that the Japanese have about 100 words for 'rain'. They have a word meaning 'rain that falls out of a blue sky'. They have another meaning 'raindrops that fall individually, at minute intervals'. There is another word meaning 'very light rain that seems to fall, then hovers for a moment and finally flies up again.'

Why don't we have words like this for rain? Why don't we have words for 'rain that makes your shirt go damp even though you haven't gone outdoors'? Or 'rain that falls so lightly on the windscreen that the wipers only squeak'? Or 'rain that flows down to your eyebrows and stays there'? Or 'rain that falls so hard it makes small dents in the washing you forgot to get in from the line'?

Still, knowing Britain, this time next week it will all have changed, and it will have turned chilly and the lone optimist down at the fish stall in Bradford-on-Avon will be saying: 'Well, I'm not grumbling, I'm really revelling in this lovely coolness,' and wondering why nobody is talking to her.