Weathering heights

Unusual terms for not-so-unusual phenomena

Had the Weather Channel been around in the 1930s, it’s possible that the period of severe drought, crop failure, and mass migration from the Midwest would have been known as the “Haboob Bowl” instead of the “Dust Bowl.” For, in addition to raising the meteorological awareness of many (and putting aside whether it creates more media hype or just feeds it, as some claim), the Weather Channel has certainly helped to introduce new words to describe some weather events.

We’ve always had specific weather terms, and they vary: A hot wind can be a “chinook,” a “sirocco,” or a “Santa Ana,” depending on where and how dry it is; what’s called a “hurricane” in the Western Hemisphere is called a “cyclone” in the Eastern, though “cyclone” is also another word for “tornado.”

While many weather phenomena require specific conditions (not every snowstorm is a blizzard), a “haboob” is, basically, a huge dust storm, one that obscures everything for a time. From the Arabic for “strong wind,” its first English usage was in London in 1897, according to The Oxford English Dictionary.

“Haboob” was an unfamiliar term to many Americans, especially outside the Southwest; it was not included in the first or second College Editions of Webster’s New World Dictionary, though it made it into the 1991 third edition. When it did show up, the “haboob” was invariably in the Middle East.

The first mention of “haboob” in a Nexis-archived news article was in 1980, in an Associated Press report about a failed attempt to rescue the American hostages being held in Iran: “The helicopter pilots encountered a haboob, a low-hanging dust cloud which occurs sporadically in Iran but was mentioned only briefly in a 1970 CIA intelligence summary used by the mission’s weather forecasters. Pilots had not been briefed on the rare weather condition and became disoriented.”

The first mention in Nexis of a US “haboob” was a May 1991 USA Today weather report for the California and Nevada deserts: “The dust clouds, often called ‘haboobs’ in the USA as well as in the Middle East, could cut visibility to near zero at times.”

But the Weather Channel, among others, have helped popularize the term. From fewer than 70 Nexis references to “haboob” between 1990 and 2000, there have been nearly a thousand in the past three years alone. That probably approaches the number of actual “haboobs.”

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has fewer than a dozen references to “haboob” on its site, most of them fairly recent. By contrast, search “haboob” on the Weather Channel, and the 55,000 results could blind you.

Another relatively recent weather term is “derecho.” From the Spanish for “straight,” a “derecho,” NOAA says, is “straight-line winds gusting to at least 58 that creates damage along more than 240 miles.” It was so named, NOAA says, in 1888 by a physics professor at the University of Iowa.

“Straight-line winds” occur with many thunderstorms, but a “derecho” should be very rare, occurring at most a couple of times a year, and mostly in the Midwest, NOAA says. NOAA’s “derecho” page goes back at least to 1983, though the term does not appear in news reports archived by Nexis until 2000. Its occurrences in dictionaries are also rare; it’s not in most, not even the OED. But if Nexis and the Weather Channel are any judges, a whole lot of “derechos” are happening, or at least being referred to: There are thousands of mentions in Nexis this decade, and nearly half a million on the Weather Channel.

Of course, some of those may be multiple references to a single “derecho.” Or they may not all have been “derechos” at all; someone may just have been blowing a lot of hot air.

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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.