September 26, 2005
Tragedy Has a Language All Its Own
Most discussions of Katrina and Rita have focused on the unprecedented ruin and despair along our southern coastline. I find it difficult to find the right English words to express my sympathy and concern for the tragedy and loss suffered by our southern neighbors. When it comes to describing the climatological events leading up to the storm, however, the English language is ripe and ready to aptly and precisely depict nature’s unfolding fury.
The word "hurricane," of course, has nothing to do with English "her" except in the minds of semioticians. Spanish explorers brought the word huracan or furacan back with them from the New World; with 39 different spellings listed in the Oxford English Dictionary, it's a word as mutable as what it describes.
The difference between a hurricane, a cyclone, and a typhoon seems to be largely a matter of where it takes place. The word "typhoon" is roughly contemporaneous with "hurricane," but the Venentian merchant Caesar Frederick was talking about storms in the East Indies. It's anybody's guess whether he was trying to say tai fung, the Cantonese word for cyclonic storms in the China Sea, or tufan, the Persian, Arabic, and Hindi term for the same thing.
"Cyclone" is a relative latecomer to the scene, coined by Henry Piddington of the British East India Company in 1848 on the basis of the Greek word kyklos, which can mean either "circle" or "cycle." In modern usage a coriolis storm is a hurricane in the Atlantic, a cyclone in the Indian Ocean, and a typhoon in the eastern Pacific.
The recently unleashed Cyclone Pyarr in India was named by the World Meteorological Organization (WMO). Until very recently, WMO used latitude and longitude identification methods to name their cyclones. In 2003, WMO started the practice of christening their cyclone with real names — since short and distinctive appellations are less subject to error than the scientific notations.
Once it strikes land, a hurricane becomes a "natural disaster." The Natural Disaster Reference Database classifies wildfires, eruptions, avalanches, tsunamis, earthquakes, landslides, flooding, hurricanes, tornadoes, cyclones, storm surge, lahars, and drought as natural disasters.
In its article on natural disasters, the Wikipedia adds blizzards and snowstorms, epidemics, famine, hail and ice storms, and sinkholes to the list, and provides as part of its definition of the phrase the shocking statement that a natural disaster isn't a natural disaster unless it destroys human lives and/or property.
The word "disaster" itself comes from the Italian disastro, "ill-starred," and means a state of ruin and misfortune. It takes a sociologist to decide that the word refers exclusively to situations of extreme social disruption. "Catastrophe," didn't become a synonym of "disaster" until 1748; prior to that it meant only a reversal, particularly in a dramatic plot. Strophe is Greek for "turn," and kata is "down" or "downward." One could therefore say that an economic downturn is equivalent to an economic catastrophe.
Again, my sympathies to the victims of Katrina and Rita.
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Tracked on October 2, 2005 10:30 PM