What words and phrases are used to describe the polar regions? Here's a cool collection.

“My name is Dave and I’m an auroraholic,” said a man in a 2019 Adelaide newspaper. Auroras are caused by solar winds in our atmosphere.

These beautiful plays of light in the night sky are sometimes visible from mainland Australia, far north of the southern latitudes where they’re more often seen. They’re absolutely compelling; no wonder people chase them in cold places.

The polar regions, which make up about a fifth of our globe, are a source of ongoing fascination for many, perhaps even more so for Australians in our hot, dry country. No less intriguing is the language used to describe these places.

I started looking for English words that are distinctively polar 33 years ago. I’ve since collected about 3,000 definitions for a historical dictionary of polar English (working title The grand polar dictionary). I really need to stop soon. There are not another 33 years left.

The grand polar dictionary traces words back to their earliest known uses. Auroraholic is a very recent word — 2015 is the earliest reference I’ve found — but people have called them auroras since at least 1716. They are northern lights or the aurora borealis in the northern hemisphere, southern lights or aurora australis here.

The aurora borealis in Norway. Photo: waichi2013th/stock.adobe.com

More than a century ago in Antarctica, explorer Henry Robertson ‘Birdie’ Bowers described them. “At times the sky was ablaze with brilliant curtains of light,” he wrote. “We lay flat on our backs and looked up at them.”

There are plenty of English snow- and ice-related words — I’ve recorded about 300, including grease ice, frazil, needle ice, shuga and sastrugi.

The grand polar dictionary documents practices unfamiliar to most Australians: a bladder feast is an Arctic ceremony honouring the spirits of animals hunted.

Some words are taboo in some places and not others, the best example being Eskimo. It’s considered offensive in Canada, but not in Alaska.

Another word with a second long-gone meaning is Greenlander. The term once referred to a ship equipped for Arctic whaling as well as to someone from Greenland. Now it only means a person born in Greenland.

Other words point to our changing environment — Arctic warming, permafrost and ozone holes. As the evolution of polar language shows, life and the environment in these regions is not frozen in time.

Top illustration: Anya Wotton

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