False Tidals

Not-quite words for natural disasters

Disasters bring out the best in journalism and journalists, and the cataclysmic events in Japan are no different. But in the rush to use vivid, descriptive language, sometimes words get mixed up.

The huge waves that washed over the coast of Japan, for example, were called “tsunami” and “tidal waves.” Strictly speaking, “tidal wave” is incorrect, because the wave is created by undersea motion and has little to do with “tides,” though the pull of the moon can have a small effect on the height of a “tsunami.” While most dictionaries accept “tidal wave” as a synonym for “tsunami,” it would be best to keep them separate, the way not every snowfall with wind is a “blizzard.” The National Weather Service says it’s a “blizzard” only when “the following conditions are expected to prevail for a period of 3 hours or longer: Sustained wind or frequent gusts to 35 miles an hour or greater; and Considerable falling and/or blowing snow (i.e., reducing visibility frequently to less than ΒΌ mile).”

“Tsunami” (the plural can be “tsunami” or “tsunamis”) is, appropriately, a Japanese word, formed from “tsu” (“harbor”) and “nami” (“waves”). Several dictionaries trace its first use in English to 1897, and Wordnik.com shows it was used far more frequently in the first half of the twentieth century than it is today, not always to describe the wave event, possibly because of the politics of the time.

But it has gained popularity in the more recent years. In March 1990, for example, according to Nexis, the threat of a big wave from an earthquake near Alaska was described as “a tsunami, or tidal wave” more than it was described as either a “tsunami” or a “tidal wave” alone. In the most recent event, “tsunami” alone far outpaces “tidal wave,” though a number of articles also have used “tidal wave” as a synonym.

The earthquake that set off the “tsunami” got a fair share of misnomers, too. Too many publications, too, not heeding our advice, measured the quake on the outdated Richter scale, which scientists have all but abandoned, and which few, if any, official measurements invoked. Today, earthquakes are measured more carefully, not by size alone, but by depth and type of waves they produce, so that one earthquake’s strength is more comparable to others regardless of where they occur. And a lot of publications called it a “temblor” or “trembler,” words seen only in scientific journals and news reports, and which evoke gelatin desserts more than violent shaking and destruction.

Just don’t do what one blog did recently when reporting on local flooding. The area had been prone to flooding, the blog said, ever since “a departing glacier deposited rock and sentiment” in the local river beds. Guess that glacier was nostalgic for the good old days.

Merrill Perlman managed copy desks across the newsroom at The New York Times, where she worked for 25 years. Follow her on Twitter at @meperl. Tags: , , , , ,