Posted by: patti | October 7, 2009

Severe Clear (Word Play Wednesday)

Because it’s a day that ends in -y, I’m playing with words today, and I’m hoping you can help.  I’ve been introduced to a new phrase, and I love it, and I am having a difficult time tracking down more information on it.

Over the summer, I was chatting with a good friend who is a pilot.  He had to postpone a flight because the visibility was “severe clear.”  I stopped the whole conversation and made him define the term, startling him.  What he told me, and what little I’ve been able to find on it since, is that it’s a military or meteorological term used to describe a sky that is so bright, so blue, so cloudless, that you cannot function without sunglasses, and often, cannot function at all.  The sky is so clear that you cannot see.

I cannot overstate how much I love this.  I love it for its potential for metaphor.  I love it for how true it feels, the way it conveys how impossible it is to look directly at someone or something when the clouds have lifted.  Truth is not crystal clear:  it is severe clear.

I immediately started a list of stories that use moments of weather, or quality of light, to illustrate a character’s new clarity or awareness  (or lack thereof).  My favorites are in William Boyd’s novel The Blue Afternoon and William Trevor’s short story “After Rain.”  Both are intense, sad stories of love and loss; both use unusual atmospheric conditions to reflect a character’s  state of mind.

So I could use help in two areas:  First, in tracking down the etymology and history of this term.  I’d like to know where it comes from and where it has been used in literature or pop culture.  I’ve scoured the interwebnets and my own dictionaries, and I’ve come up just about empty, except for this movie.  Second, I’d like to know your favorite examples of light, weather, or atmosphere used as metaphor in writing.

Help a word girl out, Internet!  Post suggestions and/or sources in the comments, please.



  1. I find it very interesting that you are drawn to this phrase. One way to define the term would be “seemingly infinite visibility”. The weather report on morning of 9/11 was “Severe Clear”, and this phrase has became the title of a documentary film about my time as a U.S.. Marine in Iraq. I won’t post a link on your blog (as that would be rude), but if you are so inclined, Google the term and you will see what I am referring to.

  2. Sorry…I just realized that you had posted a link to the film (that’s what I get for not reading the last paragraph).

    The director of the film (who came up with the concept for the title) believes that Severe Clear is an “unofficial” FAA term used by pilots. For a first-person narrative about a war, the title works because the intimate nature of the subject allows those who have not served in combat to have visibility into the grim realities of what happens on the battlefield. There is also the link to 9/11, and the fact that friends of mine from high school lost their lives in the WTC, and that this was the catalyst that caused me to be among the first troops in both Afghanistan and Iraq.

    If I can find the actual “source” of the term, I will be sure to report back.

  3. […] "the clear". I had to look it up myself too, and this article shed some light on it: Severe Clear (Word Play Wednesday) With a Twist […]

  4. Im reading all of the Stone Barrington novels written by Stuart Woods. The term ‘severe clear’ is used in many of the novels as the main character is a pilot in his spare time. I took it to mean perfect weather to fly in. I had no idea that weather can be ‘too perfect’ to fly. Very interesting.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: