Talking about the weather

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The British love talking about the weather. It’s a stereotype but it’s true. The weather in Britain is constantly changing and season names are a guideline rather than a rule. (A student from a country with a more reliable set of seasons once asked me, in a July of cloud, sun, rain and fluctuating temperatures, when summer ‘would really start’. She looked disappointed when I told her this was it.) As a result we stay glued to the weather forecast, ponder each morning how many layers to put on, and discuss the current temperature and precipitation levels constantly.

By any measure, though, this year (2018) has been unusual. After an especially cold, and late, winter, there has been an extended period of very hot and dry weather over the summer. Temperatures have regularly exceeded 30 degrees and hosepipe bans have been in operation in various parts of the country. This unwelcome reminder of climate change now appears to be over, for this year at least.

Built into the discourse of weather forecasting in Britain is the equation of warmth, sunshine and lack of rain with ‘good’ and cloud, rain and cold with ‘bad’. There are exceptions, sometimes. High temperatures may be described as ‘oppressive’, especially when combined with high humidity, and cooler temperatures after heat may be described as ‘fresher’ and ‘more comfortable’. But lack of rain is often talked of as if it mattered only to a few people. Forecasters remind us that rain after a dry spell will be good for ‘the gardens’ and welcomed by ‘farmers’, as though the rest of us could manage perfectly well without water and food. Now that lower temperatures are the norm again the traditional values are being attached to warmer and cooler: temperatures are described as ‘disappointing’ (meaning ‘lower than expected’) and occasional sunshine as ‘a let-up in the clouds’.

And the ‘heat/dry = good’ and ‘cold/rain = bad’ equation is built into the English language itself. Speakers stress their sincere delight in greeting visitors by issuing a ‘warm welcome’, whereas a disliked politician may be described in the press as receiving a ‘cool welcome’. The strongest adjective collocates of ‘sunshine’ are ‘bright’, ‘brilliant’ and ‘glorious’; alternatives such as ‘scorching’ are far less frequent. By contrast, combinations such as ‘persistent rain’ and ‘incessant rain’ are relatively frequent (54 and 33 examples in the Bank of English corpus), whereas there is only one instance of ‘incessant sunshine’ and only six of the less reliably negative ‘constant sunshine’.

Another clear example is the phrasal verb ‘set in’, famously used by John Sinclair as an example of a phrase that might imply a value without stating it outright. As noted by him, bad things are said to ‘set in’, not good ones. This is obvious with words such as ‘decline’, ‘rot’, ‘panic’, all of which may ‘set in’. But it can also be observed in phrases such as ‘reality has now set in’, which implies that the reality is unpleasant and a contrast with a false but rosy picture of the situation. Some weather terms also collocate with ‘set in’: ‘chills’, ‘winter’, ‘rain’, ‘frost’, ‘cold weather’, for example, suggesting that these too are viewed negatively. The Bank of English corpus has 87 examples of ‘winter’, ‘rain’ or ‘cold’ followed by ‘set in’. By contrast, it has only two examples of ‘heat set in’ and one example of ‘a dry summer sets in’, this being a report from Greece rather than Britain.

Indeed, engaging with other countries reminds us that the values built into English are culture-specific. Professor Edwin Thumboo of the National University of Singapore would smilingly wish his guests ‘a very cool welcome’. A visitor from a country that regularly experiences excessive heat asked me if the ‘worst’ weather in Britain was in August. I was non-plussed for a moment before realising that ‘worst’ meant ‘hottest’. And in Beijing a warning of ‘bad weather’ means high pressure and consequent air pollution.

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