Experts uncover the origins of 10 common weather terms
By Ashley Williams, AccuWeather staff writer
While many people may know the definitions of weather-related terms such as tornado and blizzard, the root origins of these and other terms may not be as familiar.
Etymology, the study of word origins, explores the evolution of such terms.
“If you want to use words to their fullest power, you have to know where they came from and what they used to mean,” said historian Douglas Harper, who compiled the Online Etymology Dictionary.
Many common English words originated centuries ago with influences from Greek, Latin and Arabic, among other languages.
The National Weather Service’s (NWS) use of the term “haboob” once upset some people in Lubbock, Texas, who instead expressed a preference for the phrase “dust storm.”
“It’s part of [a word’s personality],” Harper said. “If you know a person, you want to know [the person’s] past as part of that complete picture.”
He added that weather terms, often derived from colloquial use, tend to be “mysterious.”
“People in a particular place will give a word to the kind of weather they experience that other people don’t have,” Harper said.
English navigators unfamiliar with certain weather events would either ask native people about the appropriate term or invent a word themselves based on the language they already knew, Harper said.
Explored below are the origins of nine additional weather terms.
“It’s really the Latin word ‘directus,’ meaning 'straight,' taken in and given a sort of Spanish pronunciation so that it evolves away from Latin,” said Harper.
Navigators exploring the tropics during the 16th century likely derived tornado from the Spanish word “tronar,” or, “to thunder,” according to linguist, teacher and author Janina Klimas.
“There’s [also] a word that’s derived from that called ‘tronada,’ which is a thunderstorm,” said Klimas. “It seems that the ‘r’ and the ‘o’ got mixed up, and that’s where you get ‘tornado.’”
Harper added that tornado also stems from both “tornar,” which means “to turn” in Spanish, and the Latin word “tornāre.”
“At first, it was a very general word for a violent, windy thunderstorm in the tropics that gradually got the sense of turning into it, and it became our word for the funnel cloud storm,” he said.
“Flood is from Old English; it got its trajectory from the Dutch word, ‘vloed,’” said Klimas.
Klimas also noted roots in German’s “flut” as well as the French word “pleut,” which means “rain.”
Blizzard’s origins are uncertain, said Harper.
“They started using it heavily in the great, hard 1881 winter in the [United States] Plains that Laura Ingalls Wilder wrote about,” Harper said.
“You can even go back into the late 1700s and there’s a word, ‘blizz,’ which means 'violent rainstorm,'” he said.
The Japanese word, tsunami, is a weather term with more straightforward roots than others. It originated in the late 19th century.
“’Tsu’ means 'harbor' and ‘nami’ means 'wave,'” said Klimas.
The Spanish term, which translates to “the boy” and refers to the Christ child, originated toward the end of the 19th century, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association (NOAA).
Peruvian geographers were interested in unusual climate aberrations along Peru’s coast, noting that northern fisherman observed a switch from cold to tropical conditions around Christmastime, NOAA stated.
According to Harper, hurricane originated in the 16th century from Caribbean natives, who were invaded by the Spanish. “The Spanish picked it up as far back as the 1540s,” he said.
Klimas said the word comes from the indigenous people of Puerto Rico.
“Their word, ‘Jurakán,’ [means] ‘god of storms,’ and the word in Spanish is ‘huracán,’” she said.
The 18th-century term comes directly from the French Alps, according to Harper.
“Avalanche comes [from] somewhere in the ancient Alpine mountain languages, even before Latin probably,” he added.
According to Harper, the word stems from “lavanche” and is also rooted in the Romansch/Swiss word, “avalantze,” which translates to “descent.”
Other influences include the Old French word, “avaler,” which means “to descend or go down,” as well as “lavantse,” from Savoy dialect.
Monsoon originated in the Arabic language in the 1700s, according to Harper.
“It’s a seasonal wind that [brings] these big heavy rainstorms; the English then translated it to mean a heavy rainfall during [India’s rainy season],” he said.
“The Dutch word is ‘monssoen,’ and [the Portuguese word] is ‘monçao,’ via Arabic,” said Klimas.
“It’s interesting the way that culture and language are so linked,” she said.
Comments that don't add to the conversation may be automatically or manually removed by Facebook or AccuWeather. Profanity, personal attacks, and spam will not be tolerated.
More Weather News
Weather News - August 18, 2019, 5:51:21 AM EDT
Above-average temperatures have generally been limited to the Desert Southwest over this past week, but a shift in the jet stream pattern will bring expanding heat across much of the Intermountain West through this week.
Weather News - August 18, 2019, 5:46:28 AM EDT
A torrential downpour inundated Istanbul, Turkey, and other northwestern cities of the country on Saturday, resulting in the death of at least one person.
Weather News - August 17, 2019, 3:03:25 PM EDT
Dozens have been injured as the powerful tropical storm -- the third in three weeks to strike the country -- delivered its final blow.
Weather News - August 17, 2019, 12:41:57 PM EDT
As winter hangs on across Australia, another round of snow is expected to close out this weekend in parts of Victoria and southern New South Wales.
China and Taiwan to Japan on alert for a new tropical development in the aftermath of Krosa's deadly blow
Weather News - August 17, 2019, 11:42:19 AM EDT
If a new tropical depression or storm forms, impacts could range "anywhere from Taiwan to eastern China to southern Japan" next weekend.
Weather News - August 17, 2019, 11:32:14 AM EDT
Following news that monsoon rain has claimed more than 300 lives across India, Myanmar and Pakistan so far this month, the risk of flooding will expand to India's National Capital Region (NCR) this weekend.
Weather News - August 18, 2019, 5:40:41 AM EDT
Without much of a change in the pattern, thunderstorms will be around in Pennsylvania for the next several days.
Weather News - August 18, 2019, 7:42:22 AM EDT
Many locations have already had to deal with multiple rounds of thunderstorms over the past week and will have to endure additional severe weather threats through Sunday.