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.”