Home WI Weather Stories banner Contact/Feedback
About the Project Severe Weather Stories Sayings/Beliefs Occupation/Meteorology


Focus Questions

Learning Objectives

Preparing to Teach this Lesson

Suggested Activities

Further Resources


Standards and Benchmarks

Subject Areas

Lesson Plans

Student Work




  Wisconsin Weather Work: Occupational Culture


This lesson examines some of the cultural elements that construct the occupational folklore of weather scientists. It features stories from atmospheric scientists and meteorologists at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. Studying these oral narratives will identify narrative practices that are a part of meteorological work culture.

Focus Questions

What is occupational folklore?

What is the occupational folklore of meteorologists at UW-Madison?

Learning Objectives

  • To understand occupational folklore and culture.
  • To understand the occupational folklore of weather scientists.
  • To understand how to conduct an interview, transcribe the results and iterate a story in one's own words.

Preparing to Teach this Lesson

Introducing occupational folklore

As with any other group of workers, Wisconsin meteorologists enjoy an occupational folklore that includes stories, jokes, and frequently used expressions regarding the limitations, foibles, higher purpose, and collective identity of their profession. They tell stories of chasing tornadoes and tracking storms, thereby conveying information about how they study weather. They poke fun at themselves, in the process stressing the values and beliefs shared by members in the profession.

Occupational folklore is the various skills, techniques, verbal expressions, and customs performed within a certain occupation or workplace. All occupations have a body of informal knowledge, some of these include: skills, "tricks of the trade," jargon, jokes, nicknames, stories, and customs for recognizing status. Occupational lore, along with other types of folklore, can often be observed in cultural scenes.

One tool folklorist Robert McCarl introduced into the study of occupational lore is what he termed cultural scenes. He noticed that many aspects of occpational lore can be observed within reoccuring settings of social interaction. The example he gives is a firehouse as the setting for the frequent commenting and discussing firefighters engage in directly after a fire. The group's occupational beliefs, sense of humor, and codes for behavior were revealed during these specific times. McCarl's concept can be oberved in teachers' lounges between educators, in cafes when police officers share arrest stories, and in the kitchen of a baker where the master baker teaches an apprentice informal knowledge or "tricks of the trade."

For weather scientists, a cultural scene could be driving down a highway, chasing a storm. An experienced weather scientist might give cautionary advice to a first-time chaser. If a group of weather scientists work in the same building, they may congregate at a specific site to watch incoming weather. The jargon, informal predications, and jokes told in that space create a cultural scene.

Earning Status

Weather scientists often have formal job titles, but there are also informal status markers and ways for weather workers to recognize the achievements, or passage, of a person in their particular field. It might be the first day a weather scientist makes a public forecast on his/her own. For a storm chaser, status and respect can be earned incrementally from colleagues by following many storms and staying safe each time.

The passage from a "rookie" to an accepted or respected worker requires different skills or attitudes in every occupation. For some weather scientists, the term "weather weenie" is one marker of earned respect. As Kathy Strabala, a researcher at CIMSS who specializes in remote sensing, explains, "Weather weenie is something we all try to get to. That's a level we try to reach andI don't think it's something you can determine yourself."

As Kathy points out, the leap from "rookie" or amateur to respected worker is not defined or decided by the new worker but rather by the other workers in a workplace. Another UW weather scientist, Wayne Feltz, who studies severe weather, explains:

"I guess there's a group of us that refer to ourselves as 'weather weenies.' And, it isn't considered a slam. It just means we're really, really into the weather. It doesn't take much for us to get excited. It doesn't even have to be severe weather. It could just be an extreme."

Weather Weenies

What is a "Weather Weenie"? Doesn't sound very complimentary, does it? Surprisingly, in the world of meteorologists, a weather weenie is generally a highly regarded person.

Weather weenie is a nickname used to describe a person who is deeply fascinated by weather. Variant terms are "weather nerd" and "weather geek." According to some of the UW meteorologists we interviewed, a weather weenie is distinguished by an interest in weather that borders on obsession. Weather weenies would rather talk about weather than anything else. Weather weenies watch the sky when outside or study satellite images of storms when inside. Weather weenies' favorite channel is The Weather Channel and they have their television tuned to it twenty-four hours a day. Whether weather weenie are adventurous storm chasers or studious mathematicians, they are united by their passion for weather.

While most weather weenies have jobs relating to weather, a person who has a job in another field can still be a weather weenie if their love and knowledge of weather is sufficiently enthusiastic and single-minded. The magazine Weatherwise is a popular periodical geared toward these type of weather lovers--non-professional and non-scientist weather weenies.

While the term "weather weenie" may have, at one time, had negative connotations, today the nickname is taken as a compliment. Weather weenies around the world have embraced the name and accept it as their own, just as Wisconsinites have embraced the somewhat derogatory term, "Cheesehead."

According to one weather scientist, to be called a weather weenie by another weather weenie is the highest compliment a weather weenie can receive. Having the nickname applied to you can be a type of rite of passage into this extreme group of meteorologists.

Weather Worker Humor: Written, Oral & Visual

Q) What's worse than raining buckets?
A) Hailing taxis!

Q. Whatever happened to that cow that was lifted into the air by the tornado?
A. Udder disaster!

Q. Where did the meteorologist stop for a drink on the way home from a long day in the studio?
A. The nearest ISOBAR!

Q. What's the difference between 'weather' and 'climate'?
A. You can't 'weather' a tree but you can 'climate'!

Every occupation has its own brand of humor. Humor is important to all cultural groups. It provides entertainment, stress relief and a sense of common ground. We can learn a lot about ourselves and others by looking at what different groups find funny. Laughing together helps people identify common ground with each other. Workplace humor helps create bonds between people and livens up their day-to-day routine.

Occupational humor is generally related to the occupation. For example, lumberjacks might tell jokes about cutting wood, or waitresses might display a Far Side cartoon about waitressing on the side of their cash register. Meteorologist humor is no different. In their day-to-day lives, weather scientists find plenty of things about themselves, their profession and their work place to laugh about. For the most part, this humor can be broken down into three categories: written humor, such as e-mail forwards; oral humor, such as jokes or songs; and visual humor, such as practical jokes or silly t-shirts.

Written Humor

Weather scientists often participate in written humor. As with most professions in the United States, internet jokes relating to weather prediction and meteorology get e-mailed between co-workers. This is true of all weather-related jobs, whether in a university or at a TV station. Here is one common weather joke that's been passed around through email:

What happens when the fog lifts in California?

There are countless weather jokes on the internet, and more are added daily. Most weather-related joke sites are maintained by people who have weather-related jobs. View this collection of weather-related humor compiled by Mark Brooks, a weather weenie in North Carolina.

Oral Humor

In addition to such general weather jokes, work sites typically generate more specific humor based on colleagues' quirks, mannerisms, mistakes, passions, and unusual experiences. At the UW-Madison's Atmospheric and Oceanic Sciences Department, such humor is performed at the annual Winter Solstice Party. This long-lived tradition features a meal and skits as staple elements, with other features such as dance music provided by a band made up of department faculty, or the ceremonial lighting of Glögg (Scandinavian hot mulled wine).

After everyone has eaten, the entertainment begins. The students and younger faculty members "roast" the older professors and scientists through silly songs and skits about weather, the profession of meteorology, or college life. Some of the songs bemoan the hard life of the graduate student or young researcher; other songs cast a humorous light on the problems of research funding. Skits often make fun of the quirks of professors or researchers. Skits performed by students are very self-deprecating and self-mocking in their humorous treatment of their own life and habits. Role reversal is integral to the performance; it is the one time of year when students and young faculty members are allowed and encouraged to make fun of their elders. This role reversal is a very common form of occupational humor. Here's an example of a humorous work-related skit written and performed for the Solstice Party of 2000.

In an institute related to the AOS Department, another similar performance of occupational humor also occurs annually. The Space Science and Engineering Center (SSEC) is the work home of UW scientists who develop new observing tools for spacecraft, aircraft, and ground-based platforms; model atmospheric phenomena; receive, manage and distribute huge amounts of geophysical data; and develop software to visualize and manipulate these data. It is housed in the same building as the AOS Department. It is the agency founded by Dr. Verner Suomi, the father of satellite meteorolgy.

Every year at SSEC's Winter Holiday Party, a group of workers writes songs that gently poke fun at fellow workers and project directors, bemoan physical problems in the building, or catalogue the challenges related to funding, equipment, computer programs or other aspects of their daily work lives. Click here to view samples of past songs.

Visual Humor

Visual weather humor can be seen at every university meteorology department or weather research institution. Many weather scientists decorate their offices, cars and sometimes even themselves, to display their affinity for weather science in a humorous way. For example, many meteorologists will adorn their office doors (right), computers or walls with weather-related cartoons, action figures or bumper stickers.

T-shirts proudly proclaiming "Weather Weenie" can been seen in many weather-related institutions around the country.

Suggested Activities

Discuss with your class the idea of occupational folklore of meteorologists. Suggest that they, as students, are an occupational group too. Have them consider the parallels between their collective life as a working cultural group with that of the meteorologists described above. What are some of the songs they know that are set to well-known tunes that describe the hardships of being in school? What is some of the jargon they know and use? What are some of the jokes shared by the class about their life at school? What are some of the skills and "tricks of the trade" that they have learned from other students in the classroom, on the playground, in the lunchroom, or on the bus?

Further Resources

The Kids' Guide to Local Culture has a section for elementary students on how to investigate occupational culture. (Jump to pg. 57.)

Use ideas from the Louisiana Voices's curriculum on occupational folklife, The Worlds of Work and Play: On the Job, to extend your students' research into occupational traditions.

Forms of Folklore, The Verbal Arts gives the lecture notes from Dr. Susan Fair's class on occupational folklore. She especially highlights the commercial airline profession, and gives good advice on researching occupational culture locally.

Stand Clear of the Closing Doors! is a very accessible aticle on the occupational folklore of New York City subway workers from Voices: The Journal of New York Folklore.

Gandy Dancers: Last of Southern Black Railroad Crews, is a 30 minute video that documents the occupational folklore of crews that repaired and straightened rail lines for southern railroads.

Standards and Benchmarks

  Grade 4 Grade 8 Grade 12
Language Arts A.4.1; A.4.2; A.4.3, A.4.4; B.4.1; C.4.2; D.4.2; E.4.1 D.8.2 A.8.1; A.8.3; A.8.4; B.8.1; E.8.1 A.12.1; A.12.2; A.12.4; A.12.11; B.12.1; C.12.2; D.12.2; E.12.1
Social Studies A.4.1; A.4.2; A.4.7; B.4.1; B.4.8; B.4.7 A.8.1; A.8.3; A.8.7; A.8.8; B.8.1; B.8.8 B.12.8, B.12.9
Science B.4.2 B.8.2 B.12.1, B.12.2
Career Development K 4.1, K 4.4, K 4.5, K 4.6 K8.1, K8.3, K8.4, K8.5, K8.6 K12.1, K 12.2, K 12.5, K 12.6, K 12.11


Sponsored by:
Wisconsin Arts Board CIMSS UW Folklore Program