Wednesday, December 6, 2023

Episode 216: Snowball Effect


This week Shauna and Dan explore the history of the snowball effect. Bonus: Snowpersons, Science Fiction Matriarchs, and Snake Oil Sales Folk. Double Bonus: Air travel tips!


Click to read the show notes


Bunny Trails: A Word History Podcast
Episode 216: Snowball Effect
Record Date: December 3, 2023
Air Date: December 6, 2023


Welcome to Bunny Trails, a whimsical adventure of idioms and other turns of phrase.

I’m Shauna Harrison

And I’m Dan Pugh

Each week we take an idiom or other turn of phrase and try to tell the story from its entry into the English language, to how it’s used today.

Opening Hook
Have you ever taken an action that leads to something else, which leads to something else and it just gets to be too much? It’s like when you need a day off at work because you just need a break but your job doesn’t recognize mental wellness as a valid reason to miss work. So you tell your grandma died. Which is true, but it happened six months ago. But then your boss at work tells someone they go to church with who knew you from when you went to church there. And next thing you know it’s in the church newsletter that your grandma died and people keep calling to see if you need anything but you can’t tell them because you can’t let it get back to your boss that all you needed was a freaking break for a day and now EVERYTHING IS BAD. That’s an example of how things can snowball.  

According to the Cambridge Dictionary, the snowball effect is:

a situation in which something increases in size or importance at a faster and faster rate
End Quote

A snowball, as in a ball of snow, has been in English since at least the 1400s according to the Oxford English Dictionary.
And has been used in figurative verse since at least the 1600s. Here’s an early example, found in John Webster’s work, The White Divel; or, The Tragedy of Paulo Giordano Ursini, Duke of Brachiano. With The Life and Death of Vittoria Corombona the famous Venetian Curtizan from 1612

Ay, Ay, your good heart gathers like a snowball now your affection’s cold.
End Quote

This example is not necessarily our usage here with the concept of something snowballing into a bigger issue, but it does show the concept of a snowball has been used figuratively for a long time in English. And it is roughly the same timeframe as the earliest uses for our version of a figurative snowball.

Our usage appears to come from the concept of rolling a ball of snow down a hill and how it gets bigger and bigger as it accumulates more snow. And the earliest examples I found references just that.

This first one is in a 1622 work by Francis Bacon titled The historie of the raigne of King Henry the seventh. I was able to borrow it for free on the Internet Archive, which is possibly one of the most important websites on the internet. Here’s the paragraph:

The Rebels took their way towards Yorke without spoiling the Countrie or any acte of hostility, the better to put themselves into favour of the People and to personate their King… But their snowball did not gather as it went. For the people came not in to them. Nether did any rise or declare themselves in other Patres of the Kingdome for them…
End Quote

This is out of the Newcastle Courant, of Northumberland, England dated 30 August 1729.

They write from Warsaw, that the Party of a certain Prince of great Alliance gathers like a Snow-Ball
End Quote

Juvenile Pieces: Designed for the Youth of Both Sexes by John Evans. 2nd edition. I was unable to locate a digital copy of the 1st edition.

Be only cautious with whom you associate, and particularly what you communicate. For report, like a snow-ball, increases its bulk as it rolls along.
End Quote  

I found one that used snowballs to describe what sounds suspiciously like a multi-level marketing scheme. This is out of the Whitehall Review, 17 Sep 1892 and was pulled from the Oxford English Dictionaries resources.

The system of ‘Snowballs’ is multiplication at a very rapid rate, each giver being obliged to bind himself to find a certain number of others who will not only give, but bind themselves each to find an equal number of contributors on the same terms.
End Quote

Here’s one from the Automotive News out of Detroit, MI dated 17 April 1944. It’s the opening line from a headline by Bethune Jones

Snowballing Trend Seen In Municipal Taxes
Evidences of a snowballing trend throughout the country toward new municipal revenue sources and greater municipal sharing in the receipts from state-collected taxes are seen by observers in recent developments…
End Quote

This is out of the Evening Star, Washington DC, 27 October 1957 in an article by Lester David:

How would you like to be able to settle disagreements, anything from mother-in-law troubles to budget arguments, in jig time? Try a dramatic and imaginative technique which is snowballing in popularity among U.S. businesses and industrial firms…
The method is called role-playing
End Quote

What the actual heck America?! It was 1957 before we, as a people, were like - what if I put myself in their shoes to see how they feel? I’d be appalled, but we didn’t even pass the Civil Rights Act until 1963 and we still don’t exactly practice equity in our laws even today. But it was still a bit jarring to see this touted as a ‘dramatic and imaginative technique’ in what I feel like wasn’t that long ago.

I think this is a good time to shift to our more modern uses, since apparently 1957 was still barbarism in the United States.

Well, I don’t want to go into the break on a bummer, so let’s jump back a smidge to mention a story that was written by Katherine MacLean and first published in the September 1952 issue of Galaxy Science Fiction. It’s called The Snowball Effect.

She is a great example of women breaking barriers as she was one of a few high-profile women working in writing at the time. Here’s a quick note about her from the website Young People Read Old

Although she won a Nebula Award for The Missing Man, Katherine MacLean is hardly a household name these days. Her most productive period ran from the 1950s to the 1970s. That Nebula was won in 1971; other honours (such as being a professional guest of honor at the very first WisCon in 1977) are almost all of a similar vintage. She was admired for her ability to combine character with plot, character being an element of fiction many of her contemporaries seemed willing to do without.
End Quote

Okay, I feel better going into the break on a more positive note, so let’s give thanks to those who make this show possible.

A Quick Thank You
This episode is sponsored by our amazing Patrons on Patreon. And the cool thing about Patreon is it is 100% free to join the Bunny Trails community!

We have new things every weekday on the feeds, including a conversation about what everyone is reading, early access to the show, patron’s only polls, and our behind the scenes video which always includes a little about our week before the show and a cool feature after the show.

We’ve got some other pretty cool stuff, too, like Original Digital Artwork once a month, made by Shauna, and awesome name recognition like Pat Rowe gets every episode. And our top spot is currently occupied by the amazing Mary Halsig Lopez.

You can join the Bunny Trails community for free at bunnytrailspod on Patreon.


Modern Uses

Simply Psychology
The snowball effect is used in psychology and has several applications. Here are two from Simply, one example from social media and one from classroom learning

Creating content on blogs and social media has become a very competitive market. Most creators and blog writers may make hundreds of informative or entertaining posts before they see any appreciable traffic.

Perseverance and consistency are often key to obtaining more traffic on blogs and social media. Once they start to attract more traffic, they become increasingly more well-known.

In learning… the snowball effect can also be used in the classroom, starting with the teacher or student proposing an idea. The student can then work with other students to develop collective thoughts and snowball a small idea until it becomes a fully developed idea.
End Quote

The website has several other applications both positive and negative that we will explore in the behind the scenes video which can be found at

We see the phrase in use with respect to airlines.

Here’s an August 9, 2023 news headline from Fox5 New York, a television station covering New York City:

Airline 'ground stops' snowball effect

If it feels like your summer air travel has been interrupted more than in previous years... well, you're right! But as FOX 5 NY's Chris Welch discovered, it's not just the climate to blame for the rise in ground stops.
End Quote

Chris goes on to talk to several experts about why this is happening more and more. If you travel by airlines for work or have an upcoming flight, this is good background information to have.

It’s not just the United States aviation that uses the term. Here’s an example from the Human Environment and Transportation Inspectorate out of the Netherlands.

Snowballing is a term associated to pushing on the consequences of a flight delay to flights operated later in time.
End Quote

So it’s common to several places, even some where English isn’t the first language.

One more aviation travel tip is to book the earliest flight in the day. Here is NerdWallet to tell us why.

The second most common cause of delays: The aircraft arrived late from its previous destination.

It’s not uncommon for the aircraft flying an evening flight to have already made a couple of trips earlier in the day. If one of the earlier flights was delayed, there’d likely be a snowball effect.

For example, the aircraft’s first flight of the day may have been fine, but if the second flight had maintenance problems and arrived late, then the third flight would probably run behind schedule, which could in turn affect any subsequent flights. You can try to avoid the snowball effect by booking the day’s first flight.
End Quote

Snowball Debt Reduction Method
The snowball effect has been used in debt reduction strategies for at least the past 20 years. Here’s a quick primer on it and the avalanche method from Wells Fargo.

The "snowball method," simply put, means paying off the smallest of all your loans as quickly as possible. Once that debt is paid, you take the money you were putting toward that payment and roll it onto the next-smallest debt owed. Ideally, this process would continue until all accounts are paid off. As you roll the money used from the smallest balance to the next on your list, the amount “snowballs” and gets larger and larger and the rate of the debt that is reduced is accelerated.

In contrast, the "avalanche method" focuses on paying the loan with the highest interest rate loans first. Similar to the "snowball method," when the higher-interest debt is paid off, you put that money toward the account with the next highest interest rate and so on, until you are done. By focusing on the loans that are the most expensive to carry in the long run, you should pay less over time as the higher interest loans are addressed first.

You may save some money with the "avalanche method," but if the principal is large, the time it may take to pay off debt with the highest interest can be discouraging and make it difficult to stick to the plan. Paying off small debts quickly can feel rewarding. If you prefer to see progress quickly and work your way up, then the "snowball method" may be a better fit for your debt management goals.
End Quote

It’s important to remember that while these methods sound like solid advice, and they will work for people who can get to a certain baseline of financial security, they were written by people who make more speaking at a one-day financial workshop than most of us will make in 3 to 5 years.

These debt reduction strategies tend to assume you are making enough money to pay all your bills, all your bills are current, and you have enough extra to pay down debt. If you don’t have all three of these in place, then you are likely on the other side of the mountain, where things snowball quickly away from your goals. Here some charge comes in that you weren’t aware of or forgot about and it overdraws your bank account. Then the bank charges you an overdraft fee, which adds more money to your deficit. And you have to take money that you were going to use for gas to pay the overdraft fee just to get your account back to current so you don’t keep getting more overdraft fees. And now, you also don’t have money for gas. I’m just speaking from experience on this one.

So while I’m all for paying down debt and I think the snowball and avalanche methods are both good methods to use for some people, I also know many people are not at a point where they can even think about debt reduction. They’re just trying to put gas in the car so they can go to work and make enough money to keep the electricity on.

Positive Website
I want to move away from something that is personally frustrating to something that is uplifting. The website is a place where people who want to make the world a better place by starting a business can get ideas and connect with people who are doing similar projects in other places. Their mission, according to their website, is:

To spread the most impactful initiatives across the world, to tackle society's challenges at scale. Let's stop reinventing the wheel: impactful solutions already exist, it's high time to replicate them!  
End Quote

You can search for projects that are making positive impacts in an area that matters to you, like providing self-sustained living solutions, or cleaning up rivers, or even making your city a welcoming space for everyone. There are projects that build coral frames to protect reefs, ones that opened a generational cafe, and ones that improve the mental health of young people. You can select an example to learn more, including the creation date, where it is being used, the problem they target, the solution they have created, and the business model (or how they are paying for it).

I’m not sure how the website itself pays for things but they do have a workshop that they hold and perhaps that is where the funding comes from. In any case it seems like a worthwhile website that is doing good in the world. Even if you aren’t looking at starting a new business or project, it was really cool to see all the good things being done in the world. Check it out at snowball hyphen effect dot org.

Wrap Up
Perhaps the most important thing to remember about the snowball effect is that it works for both positive and negative things. There are countless self-help books touting the best way to harness the positive effects of snowballing, but the negative effects can be very real. When this happens it is worth it to take a step back, take a deep breath, and look at the situation with a clear head. Which is good advice in most situations, actually. If only I could follow it.

That’s about all we have for today. If you have any thoughts on the show, or pop culture references we should have included,
reach out to us on Patreon, or comment on our website

It’s poll time!

Recently we asked our Patrons, crunchy or creamy? Whether it is peanut butter or some other version, we wanted to know how you like it.

Coming in at 83% is creamy, the obviously correct answer.

I’m a crunchy guy. My go-to is Jif Natural peanut butter. I like it on pancakes, on a sandwich with grape jelly or jam, and by the spoonful with a banana and a glass of unsweetened almond milk.

But if I’m gonna bake it into a dessert, I love Reese’s brand peanut butter. It’s too sweet for regular use, but for an occasional dessert it is awesome.

My very favorite is fresh almond or cashew butter.

As a reminder, our silly polls mean absolutely nothing and are not scientifically valid. But Patrons of all levels get to take part. Head over to to take this week’s poll!


Thanks for joining us. We’ll talk to you again next week. Until then remember,

Words belong to their users.

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