Thursday, February 11, 2016

Language of Confusion: Disastrous

Kind of as an extension of last week’s weather theme, today we’re looking at the etymology of some catastrophic events. I wonder if it will be as Germanic as the last time.

[Reads ahead]


Quake showed up as a noun in the early fourteenth century and even earlier as a verb, coming from the Old English cwacian, shake. That word comes from another Old English word, cweccan, which also means shake and has no known origin. There’s not even anything remotely like it in other languages. It just showed up one day.

Tornado actually showed up in the mid sixteenth century as ternado, a word for a windy thunderstorm. There are actually a lot of variant spellings of tornado, including tornatho, tornathe, and turnado, but its modern spelling might have been influenced by the Spanish word tornar, to turn. Tornado has no real origin before that, but it probably comes from the Spanish word tronada since that word means thunderstorm like tornado used to mean. So I guess we have Spanish to thank for this one.

Hurricane also showed up in the mid sixteenth century and like tornado it’s also Spanish in origin, in this case coming from huracan, hurricane. It also has tons of different spellings to it since it wasn’t until the seventeenth century that English decided how it wanted to spell it.

Blizzard is recent enough to have an actual date to it, 1859. Yet despite this, no one actually knows where it came from. Before it meant a snowstorm, it actually had meanings like a violent blow or a hail of gunfire. Which seems strangely appropriate.

TL;DR: No one knows where disaster words came from for some reason.

Tony Jebson’s page on the Origins of Old English


  1. Two words that just showed up with no origins? Probably came from someone who was really drunk...

  2. I guess that's appropriate as you usually don't see the disasters themselves coming...

  3. Nick and I had a similar line of thought on this one.

  4. Makes sense in a way. They probably didn't have a word for it until they needed to call it something.

  5. I love that there are words with no discernible origin. It's like they just just got dropped out of the ether.


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