Baby, it’s cold outside.
The snow is falling and the temperature keeps dropping.
People are definitely not shy about sharing how the cold weather makes them feel — very grumpy, for the most part!
Have you noticed that?
Winter is here, that’s for sure.
While snow and winter holidays are fun, once the middle of winter hits (also known as the dead of winter), you may start hearing people talking, or more likely complaining, about the weather.
Sometimes what they are saying can be very confusing.
As an ESL learner you have already mastered summer vocabulary and have been working on your English slang and grammar. You have even practiced your Valentine’s Day phrases in order to snag a hot date. Did you think that would be enough to get you through the winter?
Every time you turn on the TV or hang out with friends these days, you suddenly have no idea what anyone is talking about.
Just as the Eskimos have over 50 words to describe snow, the English language has tons of ways to talk about winter. Winter brings with it its own unique vocabulary, phrases and idioms. Here are some essential English words to get you through until spring.
Essential ESL Vocabulary to Survive the Winter
There are many terms for a winter storm, and they are all talking about different types of weather conditions. Each type of winter weather has its own characteristics.
A blizzard has lots of snow and wind which makes it very hard to see outside. When you can’t see anything but white snow during a storm, this is known as a whiteout.
A Nor’easter is a type of storm in New England where the wind is blowing from the northeast direction, and this often brings heavy snow and very strong winds.
An ice storm covers everything in a thick layer of ice, turning everything into frozen statues.
A very bad storm might get called a funny nickname such as Snowmageddon or Snowpocalypse, both of which are used when people are acting like the world is going to end thanks to a storm.
(If you don’t understand where those words come from, “Armageddon” and “apocalypse” are both terms used to describe the end of the world. English speakers have just added “snow” to the beginning to be extra dramatic!)
“The grocery store was packed with people preparing for the Snowpocalypse.”
Sleet is a mixture of snow and rain that causes a great deal of slush, or wet, messy snow on the ground.
Wind chill describes bitter cold air that makes the temperature feel much colder than the thermometer reads.
“I don’t want to go outside. Even though the temperature is 20 degrees, the wind chill makes it feel like -5.”
Wind chill is the worst. Ask anyone what they hate the most about wintertime and wind chill is likely the answer.
Once a winter storm is about to happen, people start using very specific vocabulary to discuss what is going on.
For instance, friends might warn you about black ice, an invisible layer of ice that covers the roads and makes driving dangerous.
Cities will often salt or sand the roads to keep them safe. This means that they will lay down a thin layer of salt or sand to help keep cars from slipping on the road. If the roads are very dangerous, city officials might announce a state of emergency or a driving ban, which means people need to stay in their houses during the storm.
Once the weather calms down, they will then plow the roads with a snow plow, which pushes the snow off the road into a pile on the side of the street.
At Home in the Snow
When the weather is very bad, you may have to stay home until it gets better. If you lose power during a storm, you might use a generator to get power. Sometimes the wind pushes large amounts of snow against doors and windows, and this is called a snowdrift.
A snowdrift can cause you to get snowed in (meaning you cannot leave the house).
Another expression saved for when it snows a lot is blanket of snow, which is not the type of blanket you would want to wrap yourself up in to stay warm.
“The town looks so pretty with a fresh blanket of snow in the morning.”
This can also bury cars, and you will need to dig out your car using a snow shovel. If your windshield has ice on it, you will need to scrape the windows with an ice scraper.
If you live where it snows, practice saying the following:
“I can’t go until I dig my car out, because it is buried under a foot of snow.”
You are sure to be saying this quite a bit, so get used to it!
Cold Weather Sayings
When the temperature drops, people like to use slang to describe how they feel.
A friend might say they are turning into an icicle, meaning they feel like their body is frozen. Or they might tell you to hurry up because they are freezing their butt off or can’t feel their toes (because they are so cold that part of their body have gone numb or lost feeling).
You may also hear people sound like grizzly bears when they say they want to hibernate until spring. This means they want to stay inside until it is warm again.
“I’m completely done with being cold, I’m going to hibernate until spring.”
Right about now that sounds like a pretty cozy idea.
Winter is not just about snowstorms and freezing cold temperatures. There are many winter activities that are fun to do with friends and family.
Hockey is a fun sport to play and watch, and involves players wearing ice skates and hitting a puck into a net with a hockey stick to score a goal.
Many people like to go skiing or snowboarding in the mountains, and children (and adults) like to find a big hill to go tubing or sledding down.
A snowball fight — where you make round balls of snow and throw them at each other — is always fun with friends.
If you plan on having fun outside during winter, you need to wear clothing that keeps you warm. Snow pants or a snowsuit will keep you warm and snow boots will keep your feet dry when enjoying the outdoors. A beanie will keep your head warm and it is important to always wear a jacket when outside in cold weather. Always!
You will want to protect your hands with gloves and wear sunglasses so you do not get snowblind, which is another term for not being able to see when the sun shines on the bright snow.
If you need a break from the chill, cuddle on the couch and watch the Disney movie “Frozen.” Not only will it help increase your winter vocabulary, but it will inspire you as you see other fun ways to make the most of the snow-covered winter wonderland outside your door.
If someone asked you to “put a project on ice” you might think they mean to go put it in the freezer.
What they actually mean is to stop working on it for a short time.
Similarly, if someone asks you on your wedding day if you have cold feet, you might think it is a strange question.
“Of course not,” you say, “I am wearing socks!”
This actually means to be scared enough to not do something as planned.
There are many phrases and idioms that use winter vocabulary. As you know from learning about idioms, the meanings of these phrases often cannot be understood from just the words being said, which makes them very confusing.
Here are 5 more common winter idioms, so you will be able to understand what people mean. Learn them all so you know how to use them in conversation:
- (To) be on thin ice — to do something that is risky or might get a person in trouble.
“After not showing up for work, Mark is on thin ice with his boss.”
- (To) break the ice — to start a conversation in order to get to know someone or to make it more comfortable socially.
“We had a list of questions to ask in class to help us break the ice with our new partners.”
- (To) have a snowball’s chance in hell — having no chance of something happening.
“I told my friend Mike that he has a snowball’s chance in hell of dating his favorite celebrity.”
- (To) give someone the cold shoulder — to act unfriendly or to ignore someone.
“She gave me the cold shoulder the day after I embarrassed her by dancing in front of her friends.”
- (To) leave someone out in the cold — to not involve someone or keep them out of group situation.
“My boss left me out in the cold when deciding on the new project with the other managers.”
Using a variety of different winter-related words and phrases will help you converse naturally with others about the season. Idioms can be integrated into regular conversation at any time during the year, whether at the office or out for a night on the town.
Now that you have mastered your winter vocabulary, feel free to use it to complain about the weather just as the locals do. Try using it to break the ice with co-workers or with that cute girl sitting next to you at the bar, and perhaps you will find someone you wouldn’t mind being snowed in with.
Mary Ware is a teacher, traveler, and freelance writer. She writes about life’s inspirations and adventures at Gather Moments.
Oh, and One More Thing…
If you like learning real English, you should also check out the FluentU app. Like the website, the FluentU app lets you learn English from popular talk shows, catchy music videos and funny commercials, as you can see here:
The FluentU app makes it really easy to watch English videos. There are captions that are interactive. That means you can tap on any word to see an image, definition, and useful examples.
For example, when you tap on the word “brought,” you see this:
Learn all the vocabulary in any video with quizzes. Swipe left or right to see more examples for the word you’re learning.
The best part? FluentU remembers the vocabulary that you’re learning. It recommends you examples and videos based on the words you’ve already learned. You have a truly personalized experience.
If you liked this post, something tells me that you'll love FluentU, the best way to learn English with real-world videos.