Cyclone, a noun meaning a wind storm that revolves around a center of low pressure, has a somewhat interesting etymology in that it is a modern coinage using ancient roots. It is also one of those rare words that we can pinpoint its precise origin, a situation somewhat more common with scientific and technical terms.

Cyclone was coined in 1848 by Henry Piddington, an English ship captain turned scientist who had settled in India. Piddington is best known for his study of meteorology. In his Sailor’s Horn-book of that year, Piddington wrote:

We might, for all this last class of circular or highly curved winds, adopt the term “Cyclone” from the Greek κυκλως (which signifies amongst other things the coil of a snake) as neither affirming the circle to be a true one, though the circuit may be complete, yet expressing sufficiently the tendency to circular motion in these meteors.

Κύκλος is Greek for circle. Piddington’s coinage was rapidly adopted.

While the term is used in a general sense for all circular storms, regardless of wind strength or size, it can also be used more specifically to refer to smaller circular storms, such as tornados. And, in fact, in the United States cyclone has often been used to mean tornado.


Oxford English Dictionary, second edition, 1989.

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