When a Blizzard Warning is issued, it is not necessarily a warning of a big snowfall. In fact, snow might not fall at all. Blowing snow is the key to a blizzard. The word "blizzard" is believed to have originated from the German word “blitz,” meaning "lightning" or "fast." The term has been found in newspapers dating back as far as the 1820s to describe a series of blows in a boxing match. As European settlers moved to the Great Plains, the meaning was gradually expanded to describe a severe blow struck by a snowstorm. The term was used in a newspaper in Estherville, Iowa, in 1870 when a particularly nasty snowstorm struck Iowa and Minnesota.

Within a few years, people all over the Northern Plains and Upper Midwest were referring to bad snowstorms as "blizzards." The official definition from the National Weather Service and the World Meteorological Organization applies to a very strong wind which greatly reduces visibility due to either falling snow or windblown snow already on the ground.

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