Words for Extreme Weather Events
What’s the difference between a hurricane, a typhoon, and a tropical storm? The first two types of weather events are cyclones that sustain surface winds of at least 74 miles per hour—faster than virtually any highway speed limit in the United States. The term “tropical storm” refers to a degraded hurricane or typhoon.
And why are there separate designations for hurricanes, typhoons, and cyclones, which are essentially identical weather events? Hurricanes are storms that develop east of the International Date Line, which runs north to south through the middle of the Pacific Ocean. Hurricane is derived from the aboriginal Taino language’s word hurakán, which was borrowed into Spanish as huracán and thence into English. Taino was spoken throughout the islands of the Caribbean Sea, so it is natural that the language would inspire present-day usage. (A number of other words survive by assimilation from that dead language into English, including barbecue, hammock, and tobacco.)
Typhoon, by contrast, stems from Greek, although it refers primarily to storms occurring in the vicinity of China and the Philippines, on the other side of the International Date Line. What’s the connection? The Greek term typhon was appropriated by the Arabs and thence found its way into Chinese, influenced by a similar-sounding Chinese word for “big wind.” And cyclone, also from Greek (ultimately from kyklos, also the origin of circle and cycle), is used popularly in the South Pacific Ocean, though scientists worldwide use the term when speaking or writing in English.
Why do we capitalize names of hurricanes, typhoons, and tropical storms, and why are they assigned people’s first names? These are conventions established in the early 1950s by the scientific community to distinguish between two or more weather events occurring at or near the same time. (For the first quarter-century, only female names were used, following an alphabetized list. Starting in 1978, male names were used as well.)
The tradition of assigning personal names to severe storms actually goes back hundreds of years, however; Caribbean hurricanes were named after saints based on which saint’s day the storm occurred, and the assignment of women’s names dates to the late nineteenth century. Some eighty names have, because of the catastrophic severity of the event, been retired from the list, an average of more than one a year; in 2005, Hurricane Katrina was only one of five storms whose names were retired because of the especially devastating nature of the storm.
The score given to quantify a hurricane’s strength is also capitalized; the highest level is Category 5.
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