The Origin of “Hurricane”

With all the recent news about the struggles of Puerto Rico’s citizens following Hurricane Maria, you may find yourself wondering a few things. Would I be able to survive in such conditions? Are the people of Puerto Rico resilient and tough or what? And, of course, why was the federal government’s response to this disaster so slow? You may also find yourself wondering, as I was, about the history of the word hurricane. To find out, I let the winds of curiosity drive me into the Lonely Reference Library. Here’s what I learned.

Winslow Homer – Hurricane, Bahamas (1897 – image in public domain)

According to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), the term hurricane

“… is the name given primarily to the violent windstorms of the West Indies, which are cyclones [with diameters] of 50 to 100 miles, wherein the air moves with a velocity of from 80 to 130 miles per hour around a central calm space, which with the whole system advances in a straight or curved track; hence any storm or tempest in which the wind blows with terrific violence.”

This isn’t too far off from the definition of hurricane used by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA, home to the National Weather Service and National Hurricane Center), which states: “A tropical cyclone in the Atlantic, Caribbean Sea, Gulf of Mexico, or eastern Pacific, which the maximum 1-minute sustained surface wind is 64 knots (74 mph) or greater.”

(In case you’re wondering, NOAA defines a tropical cyclone as “A warm-core, non-frontal synoptic-scale cyclone, originating over tropical or subtropical waters with organized deep convection and a closed surface wind circulation about a well-defined center.”)

Annnnyway …

The OED says the word first appeared in a 1555 work titled Decades of the New World by Italian historian Peter Martyr. In it he writes, “the tempests of the ayer, they caule furacanes … violent and furious.”

Furacanes? It would seem so.

According to the (Ayto) Dictionary of Word Origins:

“European voyagers first encountered the swirling winds of the hurricane in Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean, and they borrowed a local word to name it–(Carib.) huracan. This found its way to into English via Spanish. An early alternative form was furacano, which came from a Caribbean variant furacan.

Origins, the “short etymological dictionary of modern English,”  offers a similar story, with an intriguing twist:

Hurricane: Spanish huracán: Taino (a language native to the region, now said to be extinct) huracan, hurricán, an evil spirit of the sea, hence hurricane. (Websters; Spanish authorities prefer Caribbean huracán.)

I looked throughout the LRL’s holdings for more on this “hurricán – evil spirit” connection, but could find nothing. I did, however, learn that dreaming of a hurricane could mean that “your dreaming mind is warning you that someone’s (maybe yours) pent-up emotion is about to burst out of control.” Dreams of hurricanes could also mean that you:
1. “Feel powerless against violent or chaotic emotions,”
2. Are unable to face “your own insecurities,” or,
3. Fret over the “frailty of the material world.”


Dictionary of Word Origins (Ayto)
Dream Dictionary from A to Z
Origins: A Short Etymological Dictionary of Modern English
Oxford English Dictionary (compact edition)

Published by Joe3

Founder of the College Park Community and Butter Lamb Reference Libraries

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