Etymology of 'Hurricane'

Caribbean Word Came to English by Way of Spanish

hurricane etymology
The aftermath of Hurricane Odile in Santa Rosalía, Mexico, in 2014. Photo by Ricardo Colín Armenta; licensed via Creative Commons.

Unlike most words that Spanish and English share because of their shared history with Latin, "hurricane" came to English directly from Spanish, where it is currently spelled huracán. But Spanish explorers and conquerers first picked up the word from Taino, an Arawak language from the Caribbean. According to most authorities, the Taino word huracan meant simply "storm," although some less reliable sources indicate that it also referred to a storm god or an evil spirit.

This word was a natural one for the Spanish explorers and conquerers to pick up from the indigenous population, since winds as strong as the hurricanes of the Caribbean were an unusual weather phenomenon for them.

The fact that the Spaniards introduced the word to the English language is the reason that our word "hurricane" generally refers to tropical cyclones that have their origin in the Caribbean or Atlantic. When the same type of storm has its origin in the Pacific, it is known as a typhoon (originally a Greek word), or tifón in Spanish. There is a slight difference in the way the storms are categorized in the languages, however. In Spanish, a tifón generally is considered to be a huracán that forms in the Pacific, while in English "hurricane" and "typhoon" are considered to be separate types of storms, even though the only difference is where they form.

In both languages, the word can be used to refer figuratively to anything that is powerful and causes turmoil. In Spanish, hurucán can also be used to refer to a particularly impetuous person.

Other Spellings

At the time the Spanish language adopted this word, the h was pronounced (it is silent now) and was sometimes used interchangeably with the . So the same word in Portuguese became furacão, and in the late 1500s the English word was sometimes spelled "forcane." Numerous other spellings were used until the word was firmly established at the end of the 16th century; Shakespeare used the spelling of "hurricano" to refer to a waterspout.

Usage in Spanish

The word huracán is not capitalized when referring to named storms. It is used as in this sentence: El huracán Ana trajo lluvias intensas. (Hurricane Ana brought heavy rains.)