Saturday, February 21, 2009

Thought you'd love this like I did

Word Origins: hurricane Top
from Taino
This word originated in Haiti, Puerto Rico, and Cuba

Among the wonders of the new world encountered by Columbus were storms different from any seen in Europe or the Mediterranean. These were not little tempests but huge cyclones of wind and rain that developed, moved, and faded over many days. They were distinguished by a clear, calm space at the center, and so the Taino Indians who lived in what is now Haiti, the Dominican Republic, Cuba, and Puerto Rico called the storms huraca'n or "center of the wind," where hura means "wind" and ca'n means "center." Columbus's expeditions captured huraca'n and made it a Spanish word; it found its way from Spanish to English as early as 1555. A similar storm in Asia is called a typhoon, deriving from words in both Greek and Chinese that happened to sound the same.

We know all about hurricanes now, or at least we know a lot. We know that they are centers of low air pressure and that the lower the pressure, the more intense they are. We track them by radar, by satellite, by airplane, and on the Internet. We have even turned them into a kind of sporting event, with season counts and records for intensity and damage, and with the players named in advance each season. Thanks to the National Hurricane Center, we know that the total number of hurricanes in the past century was 23 in June, 25 in July, 152 in August, 196 in September, 96 in October, and 22 in November. We know that the deadliest was Hurricane Mitch in October and November 1998, which killed 10,000 people in the Central American countries of Honduras, Nicaragua, Guatemala, and El Salvador. We know the costliest was Andrew in Florida and Louisiana in 1992, causing $26.5 billion of damage.

Every hurricane is now named in advance, thanks to a practice that began with George Stewart's novel Storm fifty years ago, in which a California weatherman called a storm Maria. The names used to be all female, but now they alternate between male and female, going down the alphabet each year. Particularly strong storms are honored by having their names retired.

Taino is a member of the Caribbean branch of the large Maip├║rean language family. Hurricane is also found in the related Carib language, so some sources derive it from that. The Taino language and people are extinct today, thanks to the European invasion, but they left us, via Spanish, three of the most important ingredients of their lifestyle and ours: potato (1565), tobacco (1577), and barbecue (1709). From Taino we also have hammock (1555), savanna (1555), cassava (1555), guava (1604), mangrove (1613), and key (island, 1697).

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