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Rock You Like a Furacane?

A guide to our language for seasonal storms. Though I prefer to focus on linguistic developments that are humorous or at least harmless-like...


A guide to our language for seasonal storms.

Though I prefer to focus on linguistic developments that are humorous or at least harmless-like the spread of terms like celebuspawn and tire-swing-pocalypse-language responds to everything in the human world, including storms. Since we've now entered hurricane season, the word hurricane deserves a look. As with other well-weathered words like blizzard and tsunami, hurricane has made an impact on English.The word hurricane comes from the Spanish huracan, and Spaniards picked it up in the Caribbean. The OED's etymological notes mention that there were "numerous popular perversions" (in other words, many spellings) of early versions of the word, including hurricane itself. "Popular perversion" and "folk etymology" are terms for what people are now calling eggcorns-logical reshapings of words like calling a moot point a mute point. The earliest known use (in 1555) shows off one of several soundalikes in the word's history: "These tempestes of the ayer (which the Grecians caule Tiphones..) they caule Furacanes..violent and furious Furacanes, that plucked vppe greate trees." Another early form had little staying power, but did acquire a nice resume, since it appeared in King Lear back in 1605: "Rage, blow You Cataracts, and Hyrricano's spout."Besides the common metaphorical uses-which can be seen in classic rock anthems "Rock You Like a Hurricane" by The Scorpions and the more concise "Like a Hurricane" by Neil Young-hurricane has also taken on some storm-propelled, no-longer-in-use meanings, such as "A large and crowded assembly of fashionable people at a private house, of a kind common during part of the 18th century." If you know that meaning, which is similar to other party-describing terms such as blowout and rager, then this 1779 quote sounds a lot less scary: "There is a squeeze, a fuss, a drum, a rout, and lastly a hurricane, when the whole house is full from top to bottom."As for hurricanes themselves, the webpage of the World Meteorological Association gives some insight into how and why they are named, noting that Hurricane Wilma is far easier to remember than Hurricane 010111001011101, which would only be memorable to Cylons. Giving a name to storms helps the media spread word about their dangers, kind of like how criminal nicknames-like The Saggy Pants Bandit and others allow the media and public to better assist the FBI in finding bank robbers.Only women's names were used until 1979, when the feminist movement hit the meteorological world, and male names were added to the list. This made hurricane-naming gender neutral and bolstered the list of potential monikers. There is a large rotation of hurricane names, but if a storm is destructive enough, some get retired-last year Alma, Gustav, Ike, and Paloma went out of the rotation, and in 2007 Dean, Felix, and Noel were put out to pasture. Just as you're not likely to meet a woman named Betsy, Edna, Camille, Hattie, Hazel, Hilda, or Beulah these days, you won't be meeting any hurricane by those names either, since they have also been retired.In rare cases, the name of a hurricane will go on to spawn other terms, if the hurricane is devastating enough. Katrina was narrowly edged by truthiness as the American Dialect Society's Word of the Year for 2005, and there have been many Katrina-influenced terms collected in Grant Barrett's Double-tongued Dictionary. A 2008 article discussed Katrina cottages, which are "small wooden homes ... originally designed to be alternatives to the trailers provided by the federal government in the wake of massive Hurricane Katrina." Being on Katrina time refers to the unconscionably long wait some people (mainly poor folks) have had to endure before being granted a trial. Katrina brain is the name of an anxiety disorder prevalent among survivors, and various health problem have been named Katrina cough, Katrina crud, and Katrina pox.Let's hope none of the potential hurricanes of 2009-which will include the names Ana, Bill, Claudette, Danny, and Erika in the Atlantic, and Andres, Blanca, Carlos, Dolores, and Enrique in the Pacific-leave such a prolific linguistic legacy.Much as I love to herd words, in this case, the less said, the better.
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via Gage Skidmore / Flickr

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