The more you know: Origins of common weather terms.

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. 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. Explored below are the origins of nine additional weather terms.

Defined 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. 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. Flood is from Old English; it got its trajectory from the Dutch word, ‘vloed’. Klimas also noted roots in German’s “flut” as well as the French word “pleut,” which means “rain.”

Blizzard’s origins are uncertain. They started using it heavily in the great, hard 1881 winter in the [United States] Plains that Laura Ingalls Wilder wrote about. We all know about Little House on the Prairie. You can even go back into the late 1700’s and there’s a word, ‘blizz,’ which means ‘violent rainstorm.

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. El Niño 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.

The word 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 1540’s. The word comes from the indigenous people of Puerto Rico. Their word, ‘Jurakán,’ [means] ‘god of storms,’ and the word in Spanish is ‘huracán. In 1763, from French avalanche (17c.), from Romansch (Swiss) avalantze “descent,” altered (by metathesis of -l- and -v-, probably influenced by Old French avaler “to descend, go down,” avalage “descent, waterfall, avalanche”) from Savoy dialect lavantse, from Provençal lavanca “avalanche,” perhaps from a pre-Latin Alpine language (the suffix -anca suggests Ligurian). Extended to falls of rock, landslides. As a verb, from 1872. Avalanche comes [from] somewhere in the ancient Alpine mountain languages, even before Latin probably.

Monsoon originated in the Arabic language in the 1700s. 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. The more you know.


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