It’s always something here on the West Coast, isn’t it? If it isn’t wildfires—thankfully not a major problem last year—it’s flooding, if it isn’t flooding it’s earthquakes, and if it isn’t earthquakes it’s … a volcanic eruption? Not here, but close enough—5,300 miles away, off the coast of Tonga, one mile below the ocean surface. It was massive enough to trigger tsunami advisories throughout coastal California and to cause surges in places like Santa Cruz and Pacifica.
One of many permanent tsunami signs in San Francisco.
On the extremely micro level, that meant canceling my scheduled swim in San Francisco Bay. Not that I’m complaining: I may be crazy to swim in 51°F water, but at least I’m not the sort of idiot who thinks, “Oooh, a tsunami! Surf’s up!”
Stuck on high ground, I did some research into the language of tsunamis, and soon discovered the word of the week, meteotsunami, which was new to me. More about this word a little later. First, though, about tsunami. The word is, of course, borrowed from Japanese; its deceptively mild literal meaning is “harbor waves.” I learned from the OED that the transliterated word first appeared in an English-language text in 1897, in a collection of stories by Lafcadio Hearn titled Gleanings in Buddha-Fields: “‘Tsunami!’ shrieked the people; and then all shrieks and all sounds and all power to hear sounds were annihilated by a nameless shock … as the colossal swell smote the shore with a weight that sent a shudder through the hills.”
Hearn was a fascinating fellow. Born in Greece in 1850 to a Greek mother and Irish father, and reared mostly in Dublin and London, he traveled to Japan in 1889 on a magazine assignment. He stayed, married a Japanese woman, became a Japanese citizen, and changed his name to Koizumi Yakumo. He died in Tokyo in 1904, leaving behind many English-language books of Japanese folk and fairy tales, among other subjects. (You can read more about Hearn in this 2019 New Yorker article.)
Tsunami caught on in Anglophone countries despite the fact that it’s hard for English speakers to pronounce: We don’t have words, other than loanwords like tsar and tzimmis, that begin with the initial ts- sound, so tsunami often ends up sounding like soo-nami. Listen to National Weather Service meteorologist Brian Garcia in this video posted on January 15:
Tsunami Advisory update 10:15am 1/15/2022 https://t.co/RN5IbnNfjN— NWS Bay Area (@NWSBayArea) January 15, 2022
The Japanese pronunciation is somewhat closer to tunami, which is how the word was sometimes transliterated in the early 20th century.
Tsunamis generally fall into three categories: local, regional, and distant. Then there is the word of the week, meteotsunami, which I stumbled upon in a tweet from Dr. Greg Dusek, an oceanographer in the Washington, DC, area.
Not sure I have ever seen this before. My @noaaocean colleague just flagged this. The pressure wave caused by the #TongaVolcano is also actually causing a tsunami - in this case a meteotsunami of about 10cm in Puerto Rico. Wild. pic.twitter.com/EapEuNhjB5— Greg Dusek (@DrGregDusek) January 15, 2022
Click through to read the rest of Dusek’s thread.
Meteotsunami was coined—I haven’t been able to find out when—from meteorological (weather-related) and tsunami. Before meteorology entered the lexicon in the 1610s, we had meteor (late 15th century), which originally referred to any atmospheric phenomenon and which can be traced back to the Greek meteōros, meaning “high up.” One of meteōros’s component parts is meta, a word we’ve seen a lot of lately.
Unlike tsunamis triggered by seismic activity, meteotsunamis are driven by air-pressure disturbances often associated with fast-moving weather events, such as severe thunderstorms, squalls, and other storm fronts. The storm generates a wave that moves towards the shore, and is amplified by a shallow continental shelf and inlet, bay, or other coastal feature.
You don’t have to be near an ocean to experience a meteotsunami. The rather terrifying photo accompanying the NOAA article was taken far inland, at Lake Superior.
I’m always glad to add a new word to my Disaster Dictionary. What I especially like about meteotsunami is that it’s part Greek and part Japanese, just like Lafcadio Hearn.