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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.”

Hurricane image from space

The term "hurricane" originated in the 16th century from Caribbean natives. (Photo/ Images)

According to the American Meteorological Society (AMS), the more-than-60-year-old term stems from Arabic’s “habb,” which means “to blow.”

“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.


Defined by the NWS as a “widespread and usually fast-moving windstorm that can produce damaging straight-line winds over areas hundreds of miles long,” derecho originated in the late 19th century.

“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 waters

The word "flood" has a combination of German, Dutch and French origins. (Photo/BanksPhotos/Getty Images)


“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.

El Niño

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.

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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.

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