Three-word weather - the Met Office challenge


Can you sum up the weather in three words? The Met Office says it is considering targetting weather updates with regional slang to avoid misinterpretation.

When it comes to weather, Britain has always had a fascination with slang terms – particularly when describing torrential rain.

Whether it’s raining cats and dogs, pelting it down or bucketing, the glossary is as inventive as it is diverse but the broad range of terminology can make it even harder to communicate the weather forecast, according to new research from the Met Office.

And it’s not just the words that forecasters use to communicate the weather that are causing confusion, it turns out that weather symbols are confusing too.

A pilot survey from the Met Office recently highlighted the different perceptions and use of language to describe rain across the county.

The Met Office is now appealing to the public to help them identify the words they use to describe the weather in their area.

Although the term ‘pouring’ is the most widely used word to describe heavy rain nationally, some cities prefer terms such as lashing it down’, ‘bucketing’ or ‘chucking it down’.

Glaswegians are most likely to use the term ‘pelting it’ and Londoners prefer to say ‘caning it’.

Derrick Ryall, Head of Public Weather Service at the Met Office, commented: “The range of slang for rain alone demonstrates the breadth and diversity of the English language and the varying terminology used across different parts of the UK.

“As the UK’s National Weather Service, we’re always looking to improve the way weather forecasts are communicated, to make them as useful as possible and increase their understanding. We’re asking the public to help us better understand how they talk about the weather by describing it in just 3 words on Twitter, giving us their location and using the hashtag #3wordweather. You’ll be able to see the #3wordweather words in real time on our interactive map at

“Ultimately we hope to use the insights from our research to tap into local dialects and vocabulary to make it easier for people across the UK to understand the forecast and make informed decisions based on it.”

Symbolic of the problem

In its survey, the Met Office found that language may not be the only barrier to interpretation, many Brits are also struggling to identify common weather symbols. Indeed, almost half of respondents (48%) were unsure which icon represented intermittent rain, with only one in 10 (14%) able to identify the symbol for sleet.

Although Brits are well-used to bad weather, 81% incorrectly thought a grey cloud symbol meant there would be a high potential for rain. Amazingly, only a fifth (22%) correctly identified all symbols for rainfall.

Unsurprisingly, Brits proved they are strangers to symbols for sunny weather, with 53% mistakenly thinking the sun symbol means it will be warm or hot outside, despite it not denoting temperature.

Although more of a grey area, two-thirds (65%) also misinterpreted the symbol for overcast weather [when almost all of the sky is cloud covered] as being generally cloudy, with a third (29%) mistakenly thinking that the symbol of a sun, cloud and snowflake indicates a chance of precipitation.

Derrick Ryall continued: “We have used a common set of symbols and vocabulary to describe the weather for over 40 years and it’s important that they are still relevant. It’s become apparent from recent studies that different regions interpret language and information uniquely. For example, in January we found that two-fifths of people living in London described 15 degrees Celsius as being cold, whereas three quarters of people in East Anglia, Wales and the South West identified it as being warm. This one example shows how polarised reactions to the same information can be, and why it’s critical that we use symbols, descriptions and terminology that people understand.”

Intent on determining the most accurate language to describe weather based on regional dialects, the Met Office is inviting the British public to have their say. And so, from today (February 1), it is inviting people to join the #3wordweather debate on Twitter, a chance for local communities to summarise their perceptions of local weather in three words and in doing so help the Met Office improve its daily communications.

“As the UK’s weather authority nobody knows the weather better than us and we’re continually looking at how we can improve our service. #3wordweather could be the first step to redefining how we talk about the weather in future,” continued Ryall. “Who knows, in time, to avoid misinterpretation, this could mean providing targeted regional weather reports in local dialects.”