tsunami / tidal wave

As most people know tsunami is a borrowing from Japanese. A tsunami is a series of large waves, caused by an earthquake or other underwater disturbance. The Japanese is a compound of tsu = “harbor” and nami = “waves.” The word first appears in English use in an article in the September 1896 National Geographic:

There were old traditions of such earthquake waves on this coast, one of two centuries ago doing some damage, and a tsunami of forty years ago and a lesser one of 1892 flooding the streets of Kamaishi and driving people to upper floors and the roofs of their houses.

Earlier in the article, tsunami is glossed as “earthquake wave.”

That same year, the Atlantic Monthly published an article, “A Living God,” by Lafcadio Hearn that includes the word:

From immemorial time the shores of Japan have been swept, at irregular intervals of centuries, by enormous tidal waves,—tidal waves caused by earthquakes or by submarine volcanic action. The awful sudden risings of the sea are called by the Japanese tsunami.

This article was republished in 1897 as part of Hearn’s book Gleanings in Buddha-Fields, which is the first citation of the word in the Oxford English Dictionary.

Tsunami can also be used figuratively. This is from Science magazine, 11 August 1972:

The Food and Drug Administration [...] is currently swimming through a tsunami of comments generated by its announced intention to alter the regulations concerning the dispensation of methadone.

Tidal wave is an older term for the same phenomenon. It is often derided as a misnomer, but it is actually no more an error than is “harbor wave.” Because of this perception that tidal wave is an error, tsunami seems to have displaced it in journalistic and technical contexts, although tidal wave is still common in popular use. Tidal wave appears as early as 1830. And like tsunami it has a figurative use, as can be seen in this 1870 letter from Mark Twain to his publisher:

We’ll have somebody standing ready to launch a book right on our big tidal wave and swim it into a success.


Works cited:

Hearn, Lafcadio. “A Living God.” Atlantic Monthly. 7:470, December 1896. 833–41. Making of America: Cornell. Web. 17 March 2011.

Liberman, Mark. ”Antedating Tsunami.” Language Log. 14 March 2011. Web. 17 March 2011.

“tsunami, n.,” “tidal, adj.” Oxford English Dictionary Online. Second edition. 1989. Web. 12 March 2011.

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