No wonder eskimos have so many words for it

Avalanche at Les Confins
Snow. White cold stuff, right? In French, it’s neige. Snowflakes are called flocons de neige (or just flocons). In the past week, I’ve seen snowflakes, rain and bright sunshine. The rain down lower was heavy, and the French saying for heavy rain is “Il pleut comme vache qui pisse” (It rains like a cow that pees).

The pistes have turned from poudre or peuf (powder) to soupe (erm, soup). There are also icy patches underneath like a patinoire (ice rink). Conditions have gone from hard-packed to soft and mushy, to avalanche-prone, then powdery, and now back to soggy snow, all in less than a week. And if you want to have a chat with any French person about the conditions, you really do have to know more than the word for snow. Otherwise it’s plain confusing: “What’s that? You were stuck in soup? You hit the ice rink? Then a cow peed?” These are just a few examples of snow-related talk that you probably need to know.

This photo of an avalanche (you can figure out its size by looking at the big pine trees) shows how a thin the layer of snow can transform quickly from a patinoire to soup, and then collapse under its own weight. Apart from the obvious faux-pas moment of misunderstanding someone who mentions getting stuck in soup, it’s pretty handy to know from a safety point of view, especially at this time of year. If someone is talking about a fondue, chances are they’re talking about melted snow and not cheese. Snow fondue is by far the less attractive type.


I’m a technical author, journalist and writer from Australia who has been living in Europe since 2000 and exploring the world from there. My passions are writing, snow sports and travel.

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5 comments on “No wonder eskimos have so many words for it
  1. caroline says:

    ce n’est pas “pouffe” mais “peuf”

    tu as aussi :
    de la neige molle
    de la neige de printemps
    de la neige de coton
    de la neige souple
    la peuf
    la powpow
    la merde blanche
    la fraiche

  2. caroline says:

    “pouffe” means “pétasse”
    pétasse = kind of whore …

  3. Angela Williams says:

    I know you love snow and snow related sports but I find it really quite terrifying……perhaps because I didn’t try skiing when I was younger and now I have two knee replacements so am not as agile as when I taught Aerobic dance.

    Do you rely on weather forecasts or are snow conditions/safety knowledge that comes with experience or is it a combination of both…….and something else?

    Still wish I had learnt though even though the photo scares the **** out of me.

  4. seb V says:

    This post was hilarious! and, yes, in here we have a LOT of words to talk about the snow, because:
    When it’s icy it’s impossible for snowboarders, la patinoire, c’est moche!
    when it’s neige de printemps, as mentioned above, it’s fun for everybody;
    La peuf is quite local. it comes from the local dialect “le patois savoyard” and it means “dust”. I think you could look into this local language (if you didn’t yet) that should help!

  5. April says:

    Caroline, WHOOPS! Thanks for letting me know: I’ve fixed the spelling. It’s so easy to be crude in French without realising it!

    Angela, weather forecasts, snow reports (which include avalanche risk), and most importantly, avalanche training and knowledge. You have to know when to say: “No, that’s too risky” even if it means missing out on potentially the best run of your life. Safety must come first.

    Seb, thanks for that insight! I had no idea that ‘peuf’ meant ‘dust’. It’s hard for me to decipher what’s local and what’s not since I’m learning the language here, but it’s something I think would be interesting to write about on here. Thanks for the inspiration to do so.

About me

Wendy Hollands writer in Annecy, France

I'm an experienced technical writer based in the French Alps. I enjoy learning French language nuances, winter sports and travel. Drop by, my other site.

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