It is a rainy, blustery day sometime in the 1950s, and at our little school desks we are preparing for lunchtime recess. Mr McHugh, my grammar school’s principal and a man of priestly aspect, announces in solemn tones that recess will take place indoors “due to inclement weather.”
Inclement weather. Not stormy weather, not a lovely day to be caught in the rain. The phrase “inclement weather” felt then—feels now—mysterious and official.
Looking out my window as snow drifts over Manhattan more than half a century later, I’m still wondering how weather became inclement. And is there any other occurrence of the term in general use?
Some figures in history have come down to us with a reputation for clemency, as Mozart would have it in his opera La Clemenza di Tito (The Clemency of Titus). The Romans thought him a good emperor, the Jews not so much—Titus was responsible for the destruction of the Second Temple.
Clement is not only an adjective but a proper name. It’s been the chosen title of more than a dozen popes. There is also a Renaissance composer with the puzzling sobriquet Clemens Non Papa—”Clemens, but not the Pope.” We don’t know why. It’s unlikely anyone would have confused him with the pontiff. (Elizabeth Non Regina would be a rather stylish name for a contemporary composer.)
When right fielder Roberto Clemente died in a plane crash on New Year’s Eve 1972, he was on a mission to provide humanitarian aid to Nicaragua. Clemente was deeply mourned. Had he not been a 20th-century Puerto Rican athlete but an early modern Spanish king, he might be known in English-language textbooks today as Robert the Clement.
You may most easily associate the word clemency with wardens and dead men walking. Judging from the Google NGram Viewer (I’ll blog about that next time) the phrase clemency appeal, with its specific sense of commutation of sentence or forgiveness for serious crimes, has a pretty constant frequency throughout the 20th century.
Clemency appeals, for stays of execution, are made to governors, often in the last hours or even minutes of a prisoner’s life. Clemency appeals are rare except in classic Hollywood movies and in Texas.
There’s no clemency appeal to the weather, though, which seems determined to punish us for abusing the planet. When we say that the weather is inclement are we unconsciously summoning up the iconography of early maps, where anthropomorphic winds are shown in the corners of the field, looking on with puffed cheeks? Is Boreas—the North Wind— the personified thing we imagine as inclement?
The snow is still coming down. Weather forecasters predict this or that meteorological detail—temperature, wind direction, barometric pressure—but have little to say about inclement weather. We’re beyond that quaint and imprecise designation.
But as my neighborhood braces for a blizzard, and shops close early, there’s an old-fashioned pleasure in coming upon a sign taped up at the entrance reading “Closing early due to inclement weather.”
The sign could have read “Snowstorm on its way. We’ve gone home. You should, too.”
I like these signs. For me, the invocation of inclemency is a linguistic madeleine. I’m the left-handed kid sitting at his right-handed desk, wondering when the weather will stop being inclement, whatever that word is supposed to mean.
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