Tsunami: An etymological perspective

While on vacation last week, I joined you in watching the tragedies in Japan unfold. Being a news junkie, and a periodical journalist, I spent many hours glued to the TV watching updates on the tsunami. It was difficult to celebrate when I knew so many people on the other side of the ocean were hurting. (Last year’s Bahamian excursion coincided with the Gulf oil spill, so it seems I have a knack for poor leisure timing.)

But this does give us a great opportunity to tie learning with current events. It turns out there is a bit of controversy tied to the history and usage of the word tsunami that I am excited to share with you.

Etymology
Tsunamis are series of waves, usually originating in an ocean, though they can form in large lakes, caused by the displacement of large volumes of water.

The word tsunami originated in Japan, which is not surprising considering the country has experienced approximately 195 tsunamis in its recorded history and thus had a great need for a term to describe the events. Tsunami is actually a combination of two words: tsu (which means “harbor”) and nami (which means “waves”).

Tsunami versus tidal wave
The word tsunami has been used interchangeably with tidal wave. However, geologists and oceanographers discourage the use of tidal wave in cases of tsunamis because they are actually unrelated to tides. Tsunamis can be caused by earthquakes, underwater explosions, and meteorite impacts in an ocean, to name a few.

In the same vein, since the tsu in tsunami means harbor, it is equally inaccurate, as the events are not limited to harbors. This leads me to believe we need a new, more accurate term. Though considering the term’s popularity and length of time it has been in use, I find it doubtful a new term would find a meaningful foothold.

First English use
The etymology sources I checked listed the earliest English usage of tsunami as being in 1897 when Patrick Lafcadio Hearn, a writer best known for his books about Japan, used it in Gleanings from Buddha Fields. However, noted linguist Ben Zimmer uncovered a National Geographic article from 1896 that used the term in the following excerpt:

“On the evening of June 15, 1896, the northeast coast of Hondo, the main island of Japan, was struck by a great earthquake wave (tsunami), which was more destructive of life and property than any earthquake convulsion of this century in that empire.”

Point one, Zimmer. The tsunami recorded in the 1896 article seems eerily familiar, having killed 26,975 people. It is also interesting that at that time Japan was still being referred to as an “empire.”

Fun fact
People have long queried that earthquakes cause tsunamis. As early as 426 B.C., the Greek historian Thucydides wrote in History of the Peloponnesian War, “The cause, in my opinion, of this phenomenon must be sought in the earthquake. At the point where its shock has been the most violent the sea is driven back, and suddenly recoiling with redoubled force, causes the inundation. Without an earthquake I do not see how such an accident could happen.”

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2 thoughts on “Tsunami: An etymological perspective

  1. I identify myself with the suffering women and children in Japan. How can this kind of natural disaster be prevented?

  2. Pingback: Severe weather etymology | Grammar Party

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