Thursday, January 29, 2004
Just a Bitter Yankee

I grew up in Connecticut, so I consider myself a Yankee. In DC, many of my friends consider me a Yankee because I come from somewhere north of the Louisiana border. I still haven't convinced some of them that our friend from Wisconsin is no Yankee at all but rather a Cheesehead. I came of age in Chicagoland, so I know from Cheeseheads (I remember once listening to the radio and hearing a parody of the winter driving advisories: "... and remember, if you can't avoid an accident, aim for something cheap or something with Wisconsin plates.")

Having experienced a few Chicago winters, I also know from cold.

The walk from my apartment in Somerville to the Davis Square T station was straight down what amounted to a wind tunnel. I took a SCUBA certification class while in high school, the open dive for which was at a quarry in Wisconsin while it was windy and snowing. After I got done with that I declared to anyone who would listen that I would never feel cold again. I'm a pretty mellow guy. There are basically two areas in which I could be considered at all "macho": weather and whiskey.

So it has taken a good deal of self control and three winters' experience not to scoff openly at the locals when they complain of the cold. This winter has been particularly cold, which means that, to my way of seeing things, DC in January is more or less what January should feel like. I've gotten used to vague intensifiers out of people, such as "so cold" or "really cold," but I've noticed something recently that has been bothering me a bit: the misuse of the phrase "bitter cold."

I've come to realize that many people seem to think that in this case "bitter" is merely an adverb idiomatically used to mean "very." This is not the case at all. Bitter cold has a very specific meaning, and when I hear somebody abuse the phrase I realize that standing before me is a person who has never actually experienced true bitter cold. When the wind blows on your face, there is obviously a chilling effect. When it is cold enough a wind, there is also a numbing effect. However, when the air and wind are sufficiently cold, there is an actual unique sensation on your face that is compellingly analogous to the sensation of bitterness on the tongue. Once you feel it, you suddenly realize, "THIS is what people mean when they talk about bitter cold!"

And from that moment on, when you hear people talk about bitter cold when it is merely stinging cold, it thuds on your ears like somebody complaining of the "freezing" weather when it's in the low forties.
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