When the polar vortex strikes, you realize we don't have enough words to describe extreme cold. Well, nothing you can say within a block of a church, anyway. All we have is "bitter."

That's a flavor, or an emotion. No one ever says, "The way my friend of many years stabbed me in the back leaves me feeling like I have to put my feet in a pot of hot water."

We don't have many colorful phrases to describe the cold. We're pretty much stuck with: "Cold as a witch's mammary gland," which really wouldn't be colder than anyone else's and was described as such to otherize a non-patriarchal belief system.

Let's run this through the Euphemism Machine. Here are some other suggested figures of speech for vortex season:

"Cold as an IRS letter."

"Cold as a dog's nose in a meat locker."

"Cold as Lenin's dental fillings."

"Cold as a penguin's keister."

"Cold as a Canadian catheter."

"Cold as my girlfriend when she listened to my phone answering machine in 1982 and heard the call from that other woman she thought I was seeing even though I wasn't, but, to be honest, I wanted to, and maybe it's good we're finally having this conversation, because it's not you." (Maybe this one is too specific.)

We need something fresh. Right now, we have nothing but old, boring terms, and this has a deleterious effect on cashier conversation. The other day I was at the grocery store that hires free-spirited, interesting people. Let's call it Swapper Jack's. If the clerk asks how you are and you say, "I'm overwhelmed with grace and the beauty of life, blinded by its simple mysteries," the clerk will nod and say "cool" and tell you about a sunset he or she saw in Morocco, and you will leave best friends.

"How are you tonight?" said the clerk.

"I'm cold," I said. "And I'm going to be colder."

"That polar vortex," he said, bagging my pineapple. "It's coming down."

"'Course, it's January," I said. "It's what we get here. Nothing we can't handle. Makes us hardy."

He nodded, beeping my yogurt. "Gotta just power through it."

"Spring will come," I said, and the rest of the conversation was hopeful and positive and utterly banal. That's when I realized something: We may complain about the cold, but it's only a prelude to discussing how we can take it and we're strong folk and, hey, you can't have spring without winter.

To test this theory, I went next door to the spirits store, where the clerk asked how I was doing. (They never ask what are you doing, because that would be weird. They ask how you are doing, but not how you are doing what you are doing.)

"I'm cold," I said, "and I'm going to be colder."

"Welcome to Minnesota," she said with a flat, sardonic inflection.

"Oh, I know. Believe me. Years of experience. I was raised in North Dakota, where it's colder. This is the tropics for me! Ha ha! Not complaining at all!"

"Keep warm however you can," she said, pointing to my purchase of whiskey. "Ain't gonna get better until it does."

I started to feel like someone who went prospecting in the Wild West in 1880 and bought a brightly colored cowboy outfit complete with spurs and fringed pants, then walked into a roughneck bar in Wyoming thinking he'd blend in.

Of course it's cold. Goes without saying.

I say this every year: It's OK not to love the entirety of winter. Like a Wagner opera — albeit one performed entirely on glockenspiels and triangles — there are parts that are awesome and beautiful. It gives the passage of time a character other climes lack. It's the length that does us in, a three-month span of constant snow and cold that seems to last nine months.

But it's also the cultural convention that says that to be true Minnesotans, we should be out cross-country skiing with snow on our beards, being hearty. For most of us, the extent of our tackling the outdoors is walking the dog on an icy sidewalk, thinking, "If I slip and break a hip, I hope the blood clot doesn't go to my brain."

To get through winter with our sanity at least moderately intact, there has to be a certain point at which we are entitled to complain, and I think that's the polar vortex season. "What a miserable, godless, painful place this is," we should be able to say. "I know we have high rates of literacy, civil participation and voter turnout, but I can't feel my frickin' face, and I despair that I am rooted to a place where the air itself is lethal to flesh. It's like living on Pluto and bragging that the libraries are well-funded and stay open past 9. We are all insane."

If you said that in the elevator, everyone would agree. But then you'd have to add, "At least it's light out longer now."

Because you wouldn't want to seem, you know, bitter.

james.lileks@startribune.com • 612-673-7858 • Twitter: @Lileks • facebook.com/james.lileks