Monday, September 9, 2013

Hurlecane season

Here in the middle of this bafflingly quiet Atlantic hurricane season, I thought I'd look at the words hurricane and typhoon. Both words refer to the same thing, a large tropical cyclone (that is, an organized low pressure system over warm tropical or subtropical water). Which name is used depends on where they occur (hurricanes in the Atlantic and parts of the eastern Pacific, typhoons in the western Pacific).

Hurricane is ultimately a New World word that has a fairly straightforward lineage, although it went through many different spellings (the Oxford English Dictionary lists 39) before finally settling down. When the Spanish encountered the native peoples of the Caribbean (specifically, the Taino of Puerto Rico and also the Arawak and Carib Indians) in the 16th century, they learned about the god of disorder who was thought to control the weather. Juracán was the Spanish spelling for the name of this god. This morphed into the Spanish word huracán. The word entered English with many variant spellings, such as harrycain and hurlecane, and eventually became hurricane.

Typhoon, on the other hand, is a very well-traveled word with a long pedigree. In Greek mythology, Typhon (whirlwind) was the name of a giant who was known as the father of the winds. The Arabic word tufan for a large storm may have been based on the Greek word typhon. At any rate, the word traveled east with Arabic-speaking invaders to India in the 11th century. Toofan is still used to refer to a large storm in India. Early European explorers may have gotten the word from Arab pilots; it entered the English language as tufan or touffon in the 16th century and was recorded as tuffoon in 1699. The Chinese had a similar-sounding phrase tai fung, for great wind. The further evolution of tuffoon into the current spelling, typhoon, may have been influenced by both the Chinese word and the Greek root.

This post was originally published under the title "Hurricane season."

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