Word Games: Chaos

Weather, the lifeblood of a British newspaper in a snow-gripped winter. Vince was a brief distraction from weeks of ice analysis. Have there ever been so many disgruntled interviews conducted from Heathrow Airport? It was the story that wouldn't go away - the snow stubbornly kept on falling
and freezing, as though it had no regard for our holiday plans.

The problem with weather news is that there's only so much you can say. Today is either colder than yesterday or warmer. There's more grit or not enough. Flights are cancelled (flights are always cancelled). So journalists ratchet up the drama. A headline from the Telegraph: "UK snow: passengers face further misery as more snow sweeps Britain" (I like the idea of "UK snow", as though we've patented it). But look at the language: “misery" and "sweeping". It's Greekly tragic. Which is fitting, as the media's preferred word to describe a country dealing with the annual occurrence of winter has been "chaos" (from the Greek, khaos).

In classical mythology, chaos meant the "abyss" at the beginning of the world, the nothingness that preceded the universe. Ovid, in his epic poem Metamorphoses, wrote about chaos as an "indigested mass", when the "air was void of light, and earth unstable,/And water's dark abyss unnavigable". Chaos today is a long Eurostar queue and insufficient supplies of grit. It has lost some of its impact.

Snow chaos is closer to the mathematical meaning, in which the chaos appears disordered but is determined from a slight change in the initial conditions: the proverbial butterfly flapping its wings. It is hard to predict - weather forecasting being a case in point. But even if we can't foresee the snow, surely we know (snow not being a new thing) what will happen when it falls?

My sneaking suspicion is that we love chaos - not when it affects us unpleasantly, but when there's that sense of things being out of control and everyone having an anecdote. It marks our memories and allows us to whinge with impunity. Happy, chaotic New Year.

Sophie Elmhirst is features editor of the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 03 January 2011 issue of the New Statesman, The siege of Gaza