Where Does the Word 'Hurricane' Come From?

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The word "hurricane" is widely known and recognized, but its etymology is lesser-known.

Named for Mayan God

The English word "hurricane" comes from the Taino (the indigenous people of the Caribbean and Florida) word "Huricán," who was the Carib Indian god of evil.

Their Huricán was derived from the Mayan god of wind, storm, and fire, "Huracán." When the Spanish explorers passed through the Caribbean, they picked it up and it turned into "huracán," which remains the Spanish word for hurricane today. By the 16th century, the word was modified once again to our present-day "hurricane." 

(Hurricane isn't the only weather word with roots in the Spanish language. The word "tornado" is an altered form of the Spanish words tronado, which means thunderstorm, and tornar, "to turn.")   

Not Hurricanes Until 74 mph

We tend to call any swirling storm in the tropical ocean a "hurricane," but this isn't true. Only when a tropical cyclone's maximum sustained winds reach 74 mph or more do meteorologists classify it as a hurricane.  

Not Called Hurricanes Everywhere

Tropical cyclones have different titles depending on where in the world they are located.

Mature tropical cyclones with winds of 74 mph or more that exist anywhere in the North Atlantic Ocean, Caribbean Sea, Gulf of Mexico, or in the eastern or central North Pacific Ocean east of the International Date Line are called hurricanes.

Mature tropical cyclones that form in the Northwest Pacific basin—the western part of the North Pacific Ocean, between 180° (the International Date Line) and 100° East longitude are called typhoons. Such tempests within the North Indian Ocean between 100° E and 45° E are simply called cyclones.

Names for Tracking

Since storms can last for weeks and more than one storm can occur at once in the same body of water, they're given male and female names to reduce confusion about which storm forecasters are communicating about to the public.

In the early 1800s, storms originally were named for a Saint's Day when it occurred.

Australian meteorologist Clement Wragge reportedly gave women's names to tropical storms in the late 1800s. U.S. military meteorologists followed the same practice in the Pacific Ocean during World War II, and the United States formally adopted it in 1953 after first considering a phonetic alphabet: Able, Baker, Charlie.

In 1978, men's names began to be used, and now male and female names are alternated. The World Meteorological Organization has established a rotating list of six years worth of names, thus repeating every seven years.

Names are retired, however, when a storm causes massive loss of life or property damage since bringing back the name would cause painful memories for those affected.

Named for People They Impact

Many storm names are unique to the basin they exist in and regions they impact. This is because names are lifted from those popular in the nations and territories of the lands within that basin.

For example, tropical cyclones in the northwest Pacific (near China, Japan, and the Philippines) receive names common to the Asian culture as well as names taken from those of flowers and trees.  

Updated by Tiffany Means

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