Etymology of ‘Hurricane’

Caribbean word came to English by way of Spanish

Satellite image of Hurricane Dean
Hurricane Dean as it approached Mexico in 2007.

Science Photo Library (NOAA) / Getty Images

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 conquerors to pick up from the indigenous population, since winds as strong as the hurricanes of the Caribbean were an unusual weather phenomenon for them.

Use of ‘Hurricane’ and Huracán

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, huracán can also be used to refer to a particularly impetuous person.

At the time the Spanish language adopted this word, the h was pronounced (it is silent now) and was sometimes used interchangeably with f. 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.

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.)

Other Spanish Weather Terms in English

"Hurricane" isn't the only Spanish weather term that has found its way into English. The most common of them, "tornado," is especially interesting because of the way the two languages played off each other.

The Strange Story of ‘Tornado’ and Tornado

Although English got its word "tornado" from Spanish, Spanish surprisingly got its word tornado from English.

That's because the Spanish word that English borrowed wasn't tornado but tronada, a word for a thunderstorm. As is common in etymology, words often change form when imported into another language. According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, the change of -ro- to -or- was influenced by the spelling of tornar, a Spanish verb meaning "to turn."

Although "tornado" in English originally referred to various types of whirlwinds or rotary storms, including hurricanes, in the United States the word eventually came to refer primarily to a type of funneled windstorm common in the U.S. Midwest.

In modern Spanish, tornado, borrowed from English, can still refer to various kinds of storms and whirlwinds, including hurricanes. A windstorm on the scale of a tornado, or smaller such as a whirlwind, can also be called a torbellino.

Derecho

Another type of storm phenomenon is known as a derecho, a direct borrowing of the Spanish derecho, which can, confusingly to foreigners, mean either "right" (as an adjective) or "straight." In this context, it is the second meaning that matters. A derecho refers to a cluster of thunderstorms that travels in a straight line and is capable of causing great destruction.

According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, Gustavus Hinrichs of the Iowa Weather Service started using the term in the late 1800s to avoid confusing a certain type of storm system with tornadoes.

Key Takeaways

  • The English word "hurricane" started out as an indigenous Caribbean terms that was adopted into Spanish and then spread to English via Spanish explorers and conquerors.
  • Because the word "hurricane" came from the Caribbean, a different term is used for the same type of storm when occurring in the Pacific Ocean.
  • The weather terms "tornado" and "derecho" also come from Spanish.