Before we talk about the cold weather, we need to figure out the specifics of our relationship. Let me explain.

When talking on the phone to people who do not live here: "Oh, I wouldn't say it's cold. Sixty-seven below, you'll get that now and then. Builds character! Tonight with the windchill, all molecular activity is expected to cease, so we might bring the plants in. Walked all the way around six lakes this morning. You just have to remember to wear lots of layers and periodically set your pants on fire."

When talking with guy friends: "I took out the trash in my underwear." "Oh, you put on underwear? Weak!"

When talking with a spouse: "Why do we live in a place where the air wants to kill you instead of moving to Arizona where you can walk to the car without losing a toe?"

When talking with a casual acquaintance: "Nippy out there! Tad brisk! I thought we'd dodged it this year, usually get it in January, but heck, gotta have that deep-freeze week, right? Ha ha! Something to remember when we're complaining about the humidity, right? Well, nice chatting, see you later for more meaningless mindless mouth-moving that reveals nothing of our inner struggles."

When talking to the dog: "It's OK. If I were you, I'd go on the rug, too."

It was dismaying to look at the weather forecast and see nothing but single digits. It was inevitable that the deep cold was called "bitter," just as all milestones these days are "grim." (In fact, Merriam-Webster will probably call the word "grimilestone" in the next dictionary.)

But why bitter? That's a flavor. Also an emotion.

Curious about the origins of the term, I did a search on a newspaper database that goes back to the mid-18th century, and found this from the Derby Mercury, Feb. 20, 1746:

"The weather is very tempeftuous, and bitter cold, with deep Snows, and has be fo this Fortnight paft." I know, it looks peculiar, but apparently England was plagued by a severe shortage of the letter "s" in the 18th century, as you can see in this Edinburgh journal, the Caledonian Mercury, from Jan. 22, 1740:

"The Front is fo bitter here, no body is fcarce above to look out; we are very much afraid of lofing fome of my People."

Lucky for English typefetters — ah, typesetters — a rich deposit of the letter "s" was discovered in the colonies, and a shipment of the letter arrived in 1769, so people no longer sounded as if they were dictating stories after a shot of Novocaine. Subsequent accounts of bitter winters are more easily comprehended.

But it doesn't explain why they said bitter then, does it? Well, I have the answer. You probably know it. In fact I'm sure you do, and you've read this far just to say, "This idiot thinks I don't know what 'bitter' means." It comes from the German-derived old English word "biter," which means exactly what you think it does.

So the bitter cold is actually a biting cold. Makes sense. How about we say that from now on? Or rather, when someone asks, "Is it cold enough for you," you can just say, "Bite me." They'll get the message.

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