Skiing as a sport is relatively new, with the recreational ski world only becoming a thing in the first half of the 20th century (the first chairlift opening in Sun Valley in 1936). But in the decades that skiing has grown into a favorite pastime of people throughout the world, a unique collection of ski terms has arisen that have become familiar to most everyone in the culture. Skiers, from novices to grizzled veterans, use a unique collection of terms without ever thinking about their rich history or origin. Exploring the background of the sport’s unique common terms is a great way to see the colorful mix of cultures and languages that makes up the backbone and history of the world’s favorite winter activity.
The root of everything. The word ski comes from the Old Norse word skíð, which initially meant “stick of wood.” The term became “ski” in modern Norwegian in the late 19th century, and then was adapted into English, French and German, but with different pronunciations for each.
Après, maybe not in name but in practice, has probably existed since the first humans decided to slide down slopes on wooden planks. Après-ski translates literally to “after skiing” in French, and was first used as a term in the Alps during the rise of commercial skiing in the 1950s. Beyond its literal definition as a period of relaxation after skiing, Après-ski provides an umbrella term for activities and entertainment offered by resorts after skiing, and can cover everything from a beer or two in the parking lot, to nightclubs and expensive dinners.
Like Après-ski, Mogul stems from Europe and the Alps. Mogul is the anglicized version of the Bavarian-German/Austrian term “mugel,” literally translating to “mound or hillock.” Mogul was most likely brought over to the American ski world by German-speaking immigrants, where it competes with the much simplified American phrase of “bumps.”
While being one of the most used skiing-terms, the origin of “bunny hill” or “bunny slope” is difficult to find. Multiple theories exist, such as that the small nature of the hill resembles a rabbit’s borough or that it refers to the jackrabbit looking nature of skiers (with the skis being the elongated feet), and the kids or novice skiers being “bunnies” compared to the older, more experienced rabbits. Perhaps most likely, the term is used as the hill is occupied mostly by novice children skiers, who use bunny as their preferred term for a rabbit.
Nordic skiing is the encompassing term for all types of skiing wherein the toe of the ski boot is fixed to the binding, but the heel is unfixed and is allowed to rise off the ski. This includes cross-country skiing, ski-jumping and telemark skiing. The origin of the term Nordic to include these disciplines is most likely due to the genesis of cross-country skiing being in Scandinavia, and the spread of the discipline by Scandinavian immigrants and influence. Nordic skiing was the most recognized and thought of method of skiing up until the mid-20th century, and was contested at the first Winter Olympics in 1924 (Alpine Skiing wasn’t added to the Olympic roster until 1948).
This French term literally means “track” or “trail,” and is synonymous with “run” or “groomer” in American English. The term of “off-piste” in regards to backcountry or out-of-bounds areas of a resort is increasingly used in American skiing.
Outside of skiing, Gondola is most often connected with the thin, flat-bottomed boats of Venice. How it got from Italian boats to enclosed ski lifts is most likely due to the old use of “gondola” in reference to a car attached to the underside of a balloon or airship. Early gondolas probably reminded people of the airship cabins, the term was first used in the boom of commercial skiing in the 1950s.
The ski-racing term of slalom is linked to the Norwegian “slalåm,” which referred to a ski-race, and literally a “sloping-track.” “Slalåm” tracks were originally purposed for young skiers to train them for more challenging runs.
The lumbering, tracked grooming machines of a resort are the result of a 1946 trademark by Tucker Sno-Cat Corporation. Tucker dominated the market until the 1960s, and by then, its trademark had become the generically used name for tracked, over-snow vehicles.
Bluebird is a distinctly American term for “a period of time characterized by sunny, cloudless weather, typically after a night of snowfall,” the term seems to be most popularly used in skiing, but there are examples of its usage in the hunting world as well. Its origin is completely unknown, and could refer to something as simple as the color of the sky, to the inherent cultural meaning of bluebirds as happiness and hope.
Justin Cygan is a fourth-year student at the University of Denver, where he studies International Relations and Journalism. Born and raised in Colorado, he learned to ski and snowboard at his home mountain of Loveland, where he still regularly rides today. When not chasing pow he can be found skateboarding, writing, reading, cooking and taking pictures in Denver and throughout the state. Justin is the proud father of a year-old aloe plant. Read more of Justin’s stories here.