White Out (as in “weather conditions”)
Posted by Elyse Bruce on June 7, 2011
White out is the first comic book written by novelist Greg Rucka that tells the story of US Marshal Carrie Stetko’s investigation of a murder in Antarctica. A sequel, “White out: Melt” tells the story of the theft of hidden nuclear weapons from an ex-Soviet base.
However, when someone talks about a white out, what they are referring to is the loss of daylight visibility in heavy fog, snow, or rain, or changing or deleting something that has been previously put forth as a statement, or something that has been published or printed.
As it pertains to weather, back on February 27, 2004 the South Wales Echo published a news story entitled, “Enjoy it, it won’t last!” The story included this:
Anyone who remembers the great white-outs of the early ’60s and ’80s knows exactly how real snow can seriously affect our lives. Those were the days when entire communities were cut off from the rest of the world for days, if not weeks. There is no doubt parts of Wales have been badly hit by the sudden Arctic snap. It’s caused chaos on the roads and will no doubt hit businesses.
A year earlier on February 3, 2003 London’s The Mirror published a story about snowstorms in Scotland in a story entitled, “Blizzard Warning.” It stated:
Scotland was braced for yet more bad weather last night as high winds and snow swept across the country. Heavy snow showers and drifts caused chaos for motorists yesterday with some roads hit by dangerous white-outs. Drivers had to deal with minor crashes and tailbacks all across the country.
Canada is not unfamiliar with the concept of white outs and transferred the concept to sports in 1987 when the Winnipeg Jets organization asked fans to wear white during the Stanley Cup playoffs as a response to the Calgary Flames’ request that their fans create a “C of Red.” The Jets won against the Flames that year and the White Out became a home playoff tradition even after the team had relocated to Phoenix.
On January 15, 1956 the Miami News carried Associated Press journalist Saul Pett‘s account of his adventure accompanying aerial explorers on a trip over the South Pole. The article was engaging and included this commentary:
We are now 20 minutes away from the pole and still in the whiteout. In an hour and a half, we are due to reach the towering coastal peaks. We are still 900 miles from the base and we have been burning gas heavily all day fighting headwinds and overcast and whiteouts on the way out.
We are now flying at an altitude of 11,000 feet above sea level but the radar shows a high polar plateau only about 1,500 feet below us. Nobody on the plane seems worried by the continuing whiteout. Except me. I keep thinking what had been told me many times — that if the plane were forced to land on a high plateau our chances of survival would depend largely on our ability to walk.
In 1846 a blizzard meant a cannon shot and during the Civil War a blizzard meant a volley of musketry. However, the German settlers in Iowa and Virginia oftentimes described severe sudden winter storms with drifting and poor visibility with the phrase “der sturm kommt blitzartig” which means “the storm comes lightning like.” The transition from blitzartig to blizzard was a natural progression.
In fact, the Northern Vindicator newspaper of Esterville, Iowa used the word “blizzard” between 1860 and 1870 to describe such snowstorms. It stands to reason that since the word blizzard was easily understood in newspaper stories of 1860 that the term was in use in the western USA as it pertains to weather much earlier than 1860.
Unfortunately, Idiomation was unable to locate when the expression white out as associated with weather was first used. That it should be used so casually in 1956 suggests it was a colloquialism in use in years leading up to the 1956 article by Saul Pett, and at least from the previous generation, placing the expression in the 1930s at the very least.