According to Wikipedia, ‘Tsunami waves do not resemble normal undersea currents or sea waves because their wavelength is far longer. Rather than appearing as a breaking wave, a tsunami may instead initially resemble a rapidly rising tide. For this reason, it is often referred to as a tidal wave, although this usage is not favoured by the scientific community because it might give the false impression of a causal relationship between tides and tsunamis.’ I vaguely understand why ‘tidal waves’ are not used to refer to these particular natural phenomena. But I cannot understand why a Japanese word of tsunami was chosen among many other similar words in other languages in the world. Is there any persuasive reason for this choice?
It appears that the term tsunami was first used in the English language around the end of the 19th centuries in books and articles about Japan. Probably the destructive force described in those writings struck the imagination of readers and the term started to be used in English:
The word tsunami originated in Japan, which is not surprising considering the country has experienced approximately 195 tsunamis in its recorded history and thus had a great need for a term to describe the events. Tsunami is actually a combination of two words: tsu (which means “harbor”) and nami (which means “waves”).
Noted linguist Ben Zimmer uncovered a National Geographic article from 1896 that used the term in the following excerpt:
- “On the evening of June 15, 1896, the northeast coast of Hondo, the main island of Japan, was struck by a great earthquake wave (tsunami), which was more destructive of life and property than any earthquake convulsion of this century in that empire.”
In 1897 Patrick Lafcadio Hearn, a writer best known for his books about Japan, used it in Gleanings from Buddha Fields
The tsunami recorded in the 1896 article seems eerily familiar, having killed 26,975 people. It is also interesting that at that time Japan was still being referred to as an “empire.”