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The meaning and origin of the expression: As white as snow

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As white as snow

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What's the meaning of the phrase 'As white as snow'?

Pure white. What better to symbolise whiteness than snow? Not only the intensity of colour on a bright winter's day, but also the purity of untrodden snow is summoned up by the simile. Shakespeare used this association to good effect in as pure as the driven snow.

What's the origin of the phrase 'As white as snow'?

We have to bring out the big guns for the origin of this one. Chaucer, Shakespeare and the Bible all contain versions of white as snow. From Shakespeare's Hamlet, 1602:

... What if this cursed hand
Were thicker than itself with brother's blood,
Is there not rain enough in the sweet heavens
To wash it white as snow? ...

The King James Version of the Bible, 1611, has this in Daniel 7:9:

I beheld till the thrones were cast down, and the Ancient of days did sit, whose garment was white as snow, and the hair of his head like the pure wool: his throne was like the fiery flame, and his wheels as burning fire.

They are slightly superseded by the little-known English author Michael Drayton, in his Idea, the shepheards garland, 1593:

"Her skin as soft as Lemster wooll, As white as snow on peakish hill, Or Swanne that swims in Trent."

The 'peakish hills' that he refers to there are the hills of the Derbyshire Peak District. I can see these from the window as I type and they certainly get very white when the winter snow arrives.

Portrait of William ShakespeareWe might imagine that 'as white as snow' was the precursor to 'snow-white'. The fairy tale Snow White was collected by the Brothers Grimm in the 19th century, but the term snow-white is much earlier and pre-dates 'as white as snow' by several hundred years. It is recorded in Old English from circa 1000 and was used in the 14th century by Geoffrey Chaucer in The Canterbury Tales - The Second Nun's Tale:

Valerian said, "Two crownes here have we,
Snow-white and rose-red, that shine clear,

Both 'snow-white' and 'as white as snow' were in common use by Shakespeare's day. So much so that a single word was coined to convey the same meaning. This was recorded by Henry Cockeram in The English dictionarie, or an interpreter of hard English word, 1623, where he defines the word 'nixious' as meaning 'as white as snow'.

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