As of this writing, hurricane Harvey has devastated much of the Texas Gulf Coast. (Here in College Station, Texas, we’ve avoided the worst of it, although it would be an understatement to say there has been a lot of rain.) But where does the word hurricane come from? It turns out it’s a rather straightforward borrowing.

Hurricane comes to us from the Taino language of the Caribbean via Spanish. The Taino word is hurákan. It makes its first English language appearance in Richard Eden’s 1555 translation of Gonzalo Fernández de Oviedo y Valdés’s 1535 summary of La historia general de las Indias (Eden included portions of Oviedo’s work, and the works of other authors, in his translation of Peter Martyr d’Anghiera’s Decadas del nuevo mundo):

Lykewyse when the deuyll greatly intendeth to feare theym, he threteneth to sende them great tempestes which they caule Furacanas or Haurachanas, and are so vehement that they ouerthrowe many howses and great trees.

Today, the official definition of a hurricane is a western-hemisphere tropical cyclone (i.e., forms over tropical or sub-tropical waters) with sustained winds of 64 knots (74 mph, 119 kph). Those with lower sustained winds are dubbed tropical storms. Hurricanes are classified into five categories of increasing severity based on windspeed, the Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Wind Scale. Category five is the worst, with sustained winds in excess of 137 knots (157 mph, 252 kph).

Before 1953, the names of individual hurricanes and tropical storms were arbitrary and unofficial. For instance an 1842 storm ripped the mast off the boat Antje and became known as Antje’s Hurricane. Saint’s names for storms that hit on the particular saint’s feast day were also common, but could be confusing if storms hit on the same day in multiple years. Beginning in 1953, names for storms were assigned by the U. S. National Weather Service. These names were originally all female ones. Eventually the responsibility for naming was transferred to the international World Meteorological Organization. In 1979, the WMO began alternating male names with female ones. The WMO currently maintains rotating lists of names used in different years and for different regions. When a storm is particularly devastating, the name is retired from the list and replaced. Recent retirees include Katrina (USA, 2005), Haiyan (Philippines, 2013), and Sandy (USA, 2012).


American Heritage Dictionary, fifth edition, 2017, s. v. hurricane.

Oxford English Dictionary, second edition, 1989, s. v. hurricane, n.

Tropical Cyclone Naming,” World Meteorological Organization, accessed 29 August 2017.

What is a Hurricane,” U. S. National Ocean Service, accessed 29 August 2017.

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