In the book Albion’s Seed: Four British Folkways in America, the author spends some time describing the rugged uplands of north England, where the settlers of the Deleware valley came from. He writes, “The climate was more severe than in the lowlands – with bitter “close mists” that settled in the valleys, and the dreaded “wireglass” that glazed the ridges and killed many an unware traveler.” My question is what is this “wireglass”, and how did it kill people? I have tried googling every conceivable variation of this idea, and come up with nothing. Any north English dopers that know about this stuff?
Maybe it’s a typo for “wiregrass”?
I thought of that, and googled that term as well. I found lots of hits on various varieties of grass, but no reason why they would be limited to English highlands or why they would be dangerous.
I don’t think it’s necessarily limited to the English highlands. It is just more dangerous there. You might slip on piece of wet grass and fall from a high place. The passage does say “glazed the ridges”, implying that the grass (if it is that) was slippery.
I’ve tried some dictionaries, and come up empty. I don’t have the OED available to me, but the Oxford Encyclopedic Dictionary doesn’t help much. The only definition I found was for glass reinforced with an embedded wire mesh, which I doubt is what the author meant. It may be a dialetic term from North England that has since fallen into disuse. samclem may be able to help more.
WAG: I’ve seen ice form around grass stalks. When this happens in a sleet or ice storm, the ice is somewhat opaque, but when the ice condenses out of very cold fog, it is quite clear. The author may be referring to this frozen grass, which would be slippery under foot or hoof.
This is just a wild guess, but could it perhaps be a regional corruption of the French word “verglas”, which means glaze?
“Verglas” in French also means “black ice” which does fit with the OPs description.
Thanks for the leads; trying to puzzle out what this stuff is has been driving me crazy. When I first read that sentence I was envisioning some sort of triffid-like lichen. The “verglas” suggestion actually sounds pretty plausible.
Amazon.com is a wonderful thing. They now have this feature where you can actually search for a word within a book. Doing a search for wireglass in the book tells me that this word occurs on page 450 and shows that page and a few surrounding pages for context. There’s a footnote on for the passage in question that says “On wind and wireglass and close mist, see William Bagshawe Diary, 1 Jan. 1697.” A Google search tells me that William Bagshawe was apparently a noted Quaker known as “The Apostle of the Peak”.
Given the way the author (David Hackett Fischer) enclosed “wireglass” in quotation marks, I submit that he himself doesn’t know what this term means and lifted it directly from Bagshawe’s diary. Either he misread “wiregrass” as “wireglass” or he has a printed transcription of the diary that was transcribe by someone who misread “wiregrass”. Regardless, “wiregrass” is an actual word used for several species of grass.
I’ve done a fair bit of walking in the hills of the Northern UK with very experienced people (myself definitely not included). I’m pretty sure that if there was a form of killer vegetation out there, someone would have mentioned it to me.
I have come across areas on hilltops with wind polished ice that was very nasty stuff to try to remain upright upon, and which could have caused you to slip over cliffs and so on. I think the “verglas” explanation sounds good.
verglas to wireglass. Sort of like isinglass or Rotten Row for Rue de Roi . Where we take an unfamiliar foreign word and use a common word or words to approximate the sound and meaning. In the case of isinglass substituting glass for blas.