Sun, Jan 16, 2005 - Page 9 News List

`Tsunami' and the vocabulary of disasters

Why a tsunami isn't the same thing as a tidal wave and how overuse has watered down the language of catastrophe

By William Safire  /  NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE

Toward the end of last year, many lexicographers agreed that the word of the year was blog, from "Web log," with its extension of bloggers, commentators with Internet addresses who had joined the panjandrums of political media.

Then disaster struck. The word to describe the event that will fix the year in the history of geologic catastrophe and the resulting human tragedy is tsunami, from the Japanese tsu, "harbor," and nami, "waves."

At first report, many of us called the cataclysm a tidal wave. That's imprecise; the Oxford English Dictionary defines its primary sense as "the high water wave caused by the movement of the tide," noting that the common belief that it was a huge wave caused by an earthquake was mistaken. An 1899 citation from The Daily News of Perth, Australia, explained the difference: "The tidal wave sweeps round the earth twice in the 24 hours; the great wave produced by an earthquake, erroneously described sometimes as a `tidal wave,' has nothing tidal about it, and it is called by scientific men `a free wave."'

Journalists a century later who turned to The New York Times Manual of Style and Usage in writing about the Asian flooding were reminded of the difference: "Tidal wave is restricted in scientific terminology to a sea wave that is due chiefly to the effects of lunar gravity. For the wave induced by an earthquake or submarine landslide, tsunami is the correct scientific term. Because it is relatively obscure, tsunami should be explained."

Obscure no more. "`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." That was a description in 1897 by Lafcadio Hearn, an Irish-American reporter who became a Japanese citizen, traveling through what he called the "Buddha-fields." Reports of the tsunami of our time, with front-page color photos and televised footage of the dead and the suffering survivors, brought to the world the horror in Asia on what is being called Black Sunday. A NASA geophysicist reported that the quake, and the huge, nearly supersonic waves it caused, resulted in the planet tilting about 2.5cm on its axis and spinning 3 microseconds faster. Rarely does the word earth-shaking have a literal sense.

We are more accustomed to the figurative use of disaster vocabulary. Mark Twain wrote his publisher in 1870 to "have somebody standing ready to launch a book right on our big tidal wave and swim it into a success." In last year's campaign, Newsweek praised two former aides to Senator Ted Kennedy: "Both should take enormous credit for helping Kerry survive the Howard Dean tsunami." And The New York Times accurately predicted the Democratic ticket would carry New York "barring a tsunami of a sweep." For a time, in light of the impact of a real rather than metaphoric disaster, political writers will hesitate to use the metaphor that causes so many shudders, reverting instead to the less fearsome landslide, avalanche,surge and firestorm. Like holocaust, the word tsunami must now be used with sensitivity.

Disaster Synonymy

"Disaster is etymologically a mishap due to a baleful stellar aspect," wrote William Whitney, a predecessor of mine, in 1875. Right on: astrum is Latin for "star," and the stars were believed to foretell destiny, fortune, fate or hap (meaning "luck"). In Hamlet, Shakespeare's Horatio bewailed "Stars with trains of fire and dews of blood, Disasters in the sun ..."

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