You’ve probably seen many references to “tsunamis, often incorrectly referred to as ‘tidal waves.'” Claire at Anggarrgoon points out that this is an odd thing to be persnickety about:

I’m not sure why people eschew opacity in this particular compound; there are plenty of phrases and compounds with tenuous relationships to their components. Bowl and board, for instance, has little to do with planks of wood (but was less opaque when “board” meant “table”), bridegrooms have nothing to do with horses, and never have done, koala bears aren’t bears but try telling a marketing manager that, etc etc.

(But what is “bowl and board”?)
Addendum. I just heard an expert interviewed on NPR refer to “the tidal wave.”


  1. Constance Reader says

    Perhaps the confusion is related to how the wave moves? Some people witnessed a “wall of water”, which is the popular perception of what a tsunami is, whereas others were caught in what they described as a tide that rushed in very fast and reached very far, like a giant tidal or storm surge.

  2. Tsunamis are sometimes preceded by abnormally low tides (the 1883 one at Lombadina was, for example) which was the only warning they had. So maybe that adds to it, although my point as more that it’s just a language/reality mismatch.
    As for bowl and board, my partner and I have been discussing this. It may have been a lexical access error for “room and board” (which also illustrates my point) caused by living across a branch of the homewares chain “bowl and board” for 4 years, but I think I knew “bowl and board” as a phrase before seeing the chain.

  3. “Bowl and board” as error for “room and board”? Could be. The equivalent “bed and board” (more common in British, New Zealand, and especially Australian usage, it seems) may be a source also, especially with its matching alliteration.
    As for “bridegroom”, one simply would not expect it to have much to do with horses, since “one occupied in horse husbandry” (!) was always only one of the meanings of “groom”, which more generally means simply “man, male person”.
    “Koala bear” is rarely said in Australia these days: just “koala” (cf. “avocado pear”).

  4. I’m not so sure “tsunami” is any better: 津波 is just “harbor wave”.

  5. I and many others use tsunami and tidal wave interchangeably because they’re one and the same thing to me. People, not experts, will dictate meaning. I’m becoming increasingly cynical in my old age – I think some people just enjoy taking the intellectual high ground.

  6. scarabaeus stercus says

    ‘bowl and board’: my guess is that someone staid at a bed and board and when thee came down for the evening meal or would it be for the petit dejeuner rusks in a warm rapper, found an empty bowl on the sideboard with a note asking for contributions.
    For those that were trained by Hilton would fail the hoi polloi test. Board could also mean the plank of wood one rested ones tired bag of bones on. i.e. the floor. It was better than the stone/earthen floor, that many a traveller would enjoy.
    ‘tsunami’: how else would one describe this phenomena after the first experiencing it from a safe distance. Who was the first westerner to report this exercise in natures bag of tricks to the unbelieving morning readers of the London times ?
    Many of the OED entries were found by a member of a fine establishment for those that had differing sense of normalacy.
    Many a phrase only got accepted only when a parchmented one quoted it, never credit it to when first heard like a certain Senator made a quotable phrase.

  7. Look it up in and English to Japanese dictionary and the first definition of “tsunami” is going to be “tidal wave.” Somewhere among the definitions there might also be “seismic wave.” In other words, in Japanese the word tsunami seems to cover any huge wave that could wipe out a town, be it caused by an especially high tide, a storm, or earthquake.
    Growing up in California, I think I knew the word earlier (decades ago) than most English speakers… and yes, in English tsunami gets used to differentiate from tidal waves, which they are not, and seismic waves, which would be a good substitute.

  8. Koala bear might not be said that much in Australia (although I still hear it from time to time) but I hear it a lot more in the US.

  9. Richard Hershberger says

    ‘Tidal wave’ meant originally a wave actually created by the flowing tide. Consider American Heritage’s first two senses: “1. The swell or crest of surface ocean water created by the tides. 2a. An unusual, often destructive rise of water along the seashore, as from a storm or a combination of wind and high tide.” I think when people first started recommending ‘tsunami’ (AH’s sense 2b for ‘tidal wave’) they had a point: ‘tidal wave’ was a defined term, and it meant something else. On the other hand, I have I don’t recall ever seeing ‘tidal wave’ used to mean anything other than a tsunami. I see terms like ‘tidal surge’ for the actually tidal stuff. AH doesn’t mark the older senses as archaic, but I think AH may be behind on the curve here. I think that ‘tidal wave’ and ‘tsunami’ are simply synomyns now.
    As for ‘bridegroom’, the ‘-groom’ bit has nothing to do with people who tend horses. The Middle English word was ‘bridegome’, with second element from Old English ‘guma’ meaning ‘man’. The Modern English spelling was influenced by ‘groom’ but has not etymological basis. The word was much maligned by 19th century usage writers for this reason. There is a moral there, about the effectiveness of usage manuals.

  10. From the authority on the subject of “tidal waves”.

  11. The Australian government provides an explanation of tsunamis at http://www.ga.gov.au/urban/factsheets/tsunami.jsp

  12. What is the Japanese scientific term for a tidal wave? IOW, do they distinguish between a tidal wave and a tsunami?

  13. In response to oranckay.net/blog I’ve just looked up “tsunami” in my Webster’s New World Japanese Dictionary Pocket Edition. Admittedly not a fantastic dictionary. The one and only English translation for the Japanese “tsunami” is “tidal wave”. “Tsunami” does not exist in the English side. Then again neither does “tidal wave”.
    A couple of related questions. When are the earliest attestations of both “tidal wave” and “tsunami”? When was it discovered that tides are caused by the gravitational pull of the moon and sun? Were the words “tide” and “tidal” in English use before this discovery? Were there terms used to refer to giant waves hitting the coast before this time? What terms are used by other languages which are not related to Japanese “tsunami”? I see that Chinese uses another term with different characters: 海嘯 / 海啸, hǎi xiào, “sea wave”. But 嘯/啸 also has the meanings roar, howl, scream, and whistle.
    Andrew Dunbar.

  14. The OED says the first recorded use in English of tsunami was in 1897, by Lafcadio Hearn (Gleanings in Buddha-Fields i. 24): “‘Tsunami!’ shrieked the people; and then all shrieks and all sounds and all power to hear sounds were annihilated by a nameless shock.. as the colossal swell smote the shore with a weight that sent a shudder through the hills.” The first use not clearly referring to Japan was in 1938. “Tidal wave” was used in this sense two decades before Hearn:
    1878 HUXLEY Physiogr. 188 The terrible devastation wrought by the great tidal wave, which followed the earthquake at Lima.
    I’m surprised the OED didn’t include this quote from earlier in Chapter One of the Hearn book:
    “From immemorial time the shores of Japan have been swept, at irregular intervals of centuries, by enormous tidal waves,–tidal waves caused by earthquakes or by submarine volcanic action. These awful sudden risings of the sea are called by the Japanese tsunami.”

  15. I’d be glad to have the feeling of native speakers of Chinese on this (Xiaolongnü 小龍女?), but, as far as I can tell, haixiao 海嘯 refers to the (roaring) sound of the wave (xiao 嘯 applies also to the passing sound of airplanes and other machines).
    This is yet another example of the absurdities of Chinese-to-Western dictionaries whenever they give Japanese equivalents: the few Chinese-English dictionaries I have “translate” haixiao as “tsunami”, followed by “tidal wave” or “seismic sea wave, without ever indicating that “tsunami” is not the Japanese reading of the two kanji 海嘯, but that it is written jinbo 津波 (a word that does not appear in any of the unilingual Chinese dictionaries I have at hand, including the Hanyu Da Cidian).
    As for Chinese-French dictionaries, they only have “raz de marée”, which used indeed to be slightly more current than the Japanese word (but I learned that one in high school when studying Asian geography). However, my outdated Dictionnaire Français-Chinois has a “tsunami” entry with the French phonetics [tsynami] and haixiao as only translation (no 津波 in sight).

  16. (talking about Chinese, have you heard about what is presented as the first national survey on proficiency in spoken and written putonghua in the Mainland? According to the results, around 53% of the population can communicate in the official language; I’ve posted links to the rather different presentations of the Guangming website and the Lianhe zaobao here and here.)

  17. I’m detecting a bit of a phenomenon. It seems certain words and phrases can become open to hypercorrection, prescriptivism, logical correction, that the majority of the vocabulary strongly resists.
    My main pet peeve is the term “data” which most people use as an uncountable noun (mass noun). But many many people think there are making a mistake and many people love to propagate the correction. They usually tell people they are using a plural noun with a singular verb or somesuch. Nobody ever mentions the terms “uncountable noun” or “mass noun”. Everybody believes the hoodoo and thinks they are making a mistake, most people continue using it in their natural way – sometimes feeling guilty! (Yes we all know about the Latin origins, Latin plurals, and that English is not Latin)
    Tidal wave is another example. “Harbour wave” is not more logical then “tidal wave”. We are being corrected and we are accepting the correction and we are passing it on. Is the term “tidal wave” now archaic? Obsolete? Referring only to some dull kind of wave most of never need talk about? How do dictionaries mark it? How do style guides mark it? I’ve started a thread over at Wiktionary to help research the terms involved if anybody here would like to help: http://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/Talk:Tsunami
    A more interesting question is, can anybody think of any other terms that follow this pattern. The first that pop into my mind are the politically motivated changes of country and city names. Has anybody discussed this phenomenon before? Has it been named? Do you all think I’m delusional? (-:
    Andrew Dunbar (hippietrail)

  18. Has anybody discussed this phenomenon before?
    I certainly have.

  19. As an example of exactly what I’m talking about, http://www.etymonline.com states in its entry for “tidal”:
    1807, a hybrid formation from tide (q.v.) + Latin-derived suffix -al. A tidal wave (1830) is properly high water caused by movements of the tides; erroneous use for “tsunami, great ocean wave caused by an earthquake, etc.” is recorded from 1878.
    for “tsunami”:
    1904, from Japanese tsunami, from tsu “harbor” + nami “wave.”
    Wow – us silly English speakers were being erroneous for a whole 26 years before we even had a non-erroneous word in our lexicon! How embarassing for us.
    I wonder how many more years before “tusnami” was in wide use?
    From the same source, “tide” is ancient but in reference to ebb & flow it dates back to 1340. I haven’t pinned down a date for the gravity/tide discovery yet…
    Andrew Dunbar.

  20. scarabaeus stercus says

    Tremendus humungus Gigantic Wave Caused by a Sea Bed Earthquake or Large earthquake sea wave [LEquaSeW]= Gigwavcse or Deusinginsfluctusterraemotus may a better term as one has not be invented to improve the Japanese word

  21. On Latin plurals like “data”, and Greek ones like “phenomena”, I have this to say:
    There has always been a undertow drawing plurals like “data”, “media”, “agenda”, “bacteria”, “erotica”, and “prolegomena” inexorably towards singularity, and many of them also to mass-noun status (though this ought properly to be analysed as a separate issue).
    This tendency is not confined to words of Latin and Greek provenance. Here are some from Italian:
    And perhaps some from Hebrew:
    And Arabic:
    With many of the Latin- and Greek-sourced words, I cannot bring myself to treat them as plurals, and shall always resist in the cases of “data” and “media”, and rail against “a phenonema” and “a criteria”. Many of us lapse with “bacteria” and “erotica”, though; and who among us ever uses “agenda” as a plural these days, or hesitates even to concede the plural “agendas”? (For this last, compare catachrestic use of “pudenda” for “pudendum”.)
    The shocking truth, of course, is that the development of Latin and Greek neuter plurals into Romance feminine singulars precedes and possibly smooths the way for this modern trend. The standard example is Greek neuter plural “biblia” (meaning “books”; singular is “biblion”), which stays neuter plural in Latin, but passes into French as “la bible”, whence we have it as a singular.
    It ought to be noted also that Greek neuter plurals were standardly the subjects of singular forms of verbs. This may be relevant in explaining the strange trajectories of the English “-ics” words (e.g., “physics”, “ethics”, “mathematics”, and um… “noetics”). They were at first Greek plurals (like “ta phusika” = “the natural [things]”), then Latin plurals (“physica”), then French singulars (“la physique”); they eventually yielded English plural forms that are standardly treated as singulars (“physics”), in something like the manner of such oddities as “a bellows”. In some cases (like “politics”, “mechanics”), usage allows treatment as plural or singular, with occasional hesitations apparent. (An alternative path for “physics” at least takes Greek feminine singular “hê physikê [tekhnê]” – “the physical art” – as a source. This duality is rarely addressed, let alone resolved, in etymological dictionaries. OED seems to prefer the account I give above.)

  22. I cannot bring myself to treat them as plurals
    I assume you mean “singulars.” But I’m curious — if you understand the history so well, why do you rail against forms inexorably following that history? Not using them yourself is one thing, we all choose which version of the language we prefer, but “railing” against inevitable developments seems as silly as telling the tide to turn back.

  23. O yes, sorry: I meant “singulars”.
    Why do I rail against the ineluctable? I don’t see it as silly to do so; nor do I see it as the best or only rational policy. One adopts different particular stances in different forums, to different ends. Don’t we all do this?
    There may yet be a single governing purpose behind such diversity. What I generally rail against is an unthinking acceptance of change in language. Don’t many of us here do this? The tidal surge of style is the resultant of innumerable forces. Among these forces some may be characterised as conservative, some as innovative. Recognising this does not preclude one’s acting as a partisan of one side or the other. I am, on most issues of usage, proud to act as a partisan of the conservative side. To take a starker example than the one last discussed, consider the apostrophe. I don’t know how things stand in Septentrionalia, but in Australia most young people are growing up with little conception of its “proper” uses. I regard the demise of the apostrophe as inevitable; but I advise my students at least to know the canonic uses, and if they depart from these, let this be by informed choice. As a teacher, if I were to adopt any other attitude I would risk either alienating my charges by appearing hopelessly out of touch, or depriving them of vital information for their academic survival.
    Rage against the dying of the light? Sure, if that’s your preference. In language, that is indeed my preference; in dying, we’ll see… but I hope I’ll make a difference choice there.

  24. Fair enough. I used to rail more than I do, but around the time I passed the half-century mark I guess I got tired of it.

  25. Fair enough to you too. Yes, railing may diminish with age, as I too can attest.

  26. xiaolongnu says

    I’m coming late to this discussion, perhaps too late. First, in response to Jimmy Ho, I’m flattered but must confess to being a fluent non-native speaker of Mandarin (20 years) rather than a native speaker. I am also a non-native, non-fluent speaker of Japanese, and I live in Hawai’i, the center of the Pacific tsunami monitoring system. For whatever that’s worth.
    Credentials aside, I must say that haixiao 海啸 is the only term I’ve ever encountered in Chinese to refer to a tsunami. It’s interesting because it clearly doesn’t come from the Japanese (it would be perfectly possible to call the wave jinbo 津波 in Mandarin, but as far as I can tell nobody does). So many terms in modern Chinese do come from Japanese that it seems a little odd that this one does not.
    The Chinese term also shares with the English “tidal wave” a certain inaccuracy, since the literal meaning of haixiao is, as several people have pointed out “the roar of the sea.” I would be inclined to think that the English and Chinese terms share a reason for this inaccuracy, namely, that neither England nor China is historically subject to tsunami. There is a famous tidal bore in the Qiantang river at Hangzhou, and several other parts of the country experience storm surges and typhoons, but despite China’s considerable seismic activity, it’s not famous for tsunami. Anyway, it strikes me that both haixiao and “tidal wave” are perfectly functional words in their common usage, so I’m not sure I’d be inclined to insist on making a distinction between tidal and seismic sea waves in English, nor between the roar of a seismic sea wave and that of the ordinary surf in Chinese.
    Now as to Japanese, I find that I’ve been making a very interesting mistake all these years. I always assumed that the word tsunami in Japanese was written with the kanji 通波 (which would actually make it tsuunami) rather than, as I now find, with the kanji 津波. I’m a little disappointed, actually, because I kind of like my etymology (“pervading wave”) better than the actual term (“harbor wave”), however logical it is.
    – 小龍女

  27. In the battle of “tidal wave” vs “tsunami” “tidal wave” will lose because most people perceive its inaccuracy. (As if that matters – what about “sunrise” for example?) In any case, the similar inaccuracy of “tsunami” will stay unperceived.
    However, I think the main reason “tsunami” will win is because it sounds so appropriately exotic and dangerous.

  28. “tidal wave” will lose because most people perceive its inaccuracy
    You seriously overestimate the scientific awareness of “most people.” If tsunami wins, it will be because it is uniformly adopted by the media and trickles into popular usage — but that will take a long time, if it happens at all, precisely because the word is so foreign-sounding. People tend to prefer easy-to-say, familiar-sounding words.

  29. yes, given that the “scientific awareness” of the Sun extends to calling a girl’s knowledge of geography and applied science “intuition” (she recognised the rapidly receding tide as a precursor and warned others).
    Incidentally, my vague taking notice of pronunciations of tsunami seems to indicate that a few newsreaders pronounce the initial cluster, but most people just drop it (after all, we have all sorts of words with initial stop+s clusters from Greek where it’s just dropped). And sunami’s a perfectly phonotactically possible English word.

  30. I tried to explain to a friend, that a tidal wave was indeed a earthquake, and that the waves were caused by the seismic waves.I call it my” dish pan theory”.
    Put water in a pan and tap it .Watch the ripples caused by the sound vibes.The louder the tap ,which causes the sound vibrations,the bigger the waves………
    Vibrations or sound from the seismic waves causes the water to rise and form wave patterns,which could grow to very large sizes .Size would depend on how bad the quake was.
    Would I stand corrected,or would I be somewhat correct? E-mails are welcomed……

  31. Xiaolongnü,
    thank you for replying. No problem about the “credentials”. I naturally assumed you were a native speaker of Chinese, probably because of your many excellent comments on the language. Since my signature can be misleading, I myself always point out, whenever I feel it’s relevant, that my native language is Greek (and I recently updated my Blogger User Profile to that effect).
    My question is still valid, anyhow, since your experience as a fluent speaker is a lot longer than mine (if I really had to date my fluency in guoyu, I’d say about only seven years ago). You beat me on Japanese as well: so far, all I can do is read sinological works, as long as I have a good grammar near to me and there are enough kanji and direct quotes from Chinese that I don’t get lost in the “purely Japanese” stuff.
    Therefore, I’m actually glad that you seem to confirm my understanding of haixiao. And yes, tongbo 通波 is quite an meaningful word, on many levels (I’ll confess I had a sort of “tong 通 character fetish” when I was younger).

  32. You know how the standard spelling of English words is the result of a dictionary being announced as a decisive source of spellings; and, as a result, there is difficulty later on in deciding the etymology of a word.
    Well, maybe that happens with Japanese symbols too. Maybe tsu means ‘huge’ or some other meaning; but, at a point in time when an official had to write the word down, he opted for “harbour”.
    If a huge wave causes a lot of damage and traumatises people then I would imagine that people would give it a more dramatic name than “harbour wave”.
    eg. Earthquakes are not called ‘ground movements’.

  33. Vilhelm Sjoberg says

    As for the meaning of tsunami in Japanese, there can be no doubt that at least the most salient one is “huge wave caused by earthquake”. In particular, every earthquake announcement newsflash on national tv ends with a statement of whether there is a risk of tsunamis or not.

    Now, does this mean that Webster’s New World Japanese Dictionary Pocket Edition is incorrect in translating it as “tidal wave”? Well, that’s the question, isn’t it? 🙂 Arguably not, since “tidal wave” is in common use in English with the same meaning.

  34. Vilhelm Sjöberg says

    Oh, as for the Japanese etymology, it seems that at least Koujien (famous Japanese dictionary) believes that the word came about because it was a wave targeting harbours, rather than that the kanjis were retro-fitted afterwards. This topic was discussed on the Usenet newsgroup sci.lang.japan last week, so interested people could have a look at the Google archives.

  35. Kyle Morgan says

    Tidal wave and tsunami are actully very different its like the water drops than just rises at a speed reaching over 400 mph.

  36. Xiaolongnü,
    You can surely check it at your Faculty or home, but, just in case, I copied the tongbo 通波 entry from the HYDCD. I’ll post it here if other readers are interested (it’s very short, with examples exclusively taken from poems, but I don’t feel like translating it in English right now).
    Just let me know, here in the comments or by email (there is a direct link to my address).

  37. I agree that the word to win will be the one more used by the media. One example is hurricane, which comes from the spanish word huracan, which was adopted literally from the Taino nativee americans in the the caribbean (Puerto Rico, Dominican Republic, Cuba etc.)
    It is interesting that the spanish language has a correct translation for tsunami. The word ‘maremoto’ literally means ‘sea movement’, but the definition refers to the giant waves created the underwater seismic activity. In that sense, ‘seismic wave’ could be adopted as good fit for the translation of the word tsunami. Does not cover other giant wave inmersions referred to as tsunami in Japan, but for what matters now (the event on December 26), it does.

  38. The English word for tsunami is “tidal wave” a.k.a harbor wave..and southern americans are going to cop an enormous tidal wave because of the canary islands..theres going to be a volcanic eruption on the island..and when that happens a huge chunk of the island is going to crash into the atlantic ocean and wipe out most of southern america and southern england haha start running!

  39. And this wave is going to be phawken huge bigger than any wave ever recorded or ever seen!

  40. scientists are trying to find out if its bits of rock or 1 big chunk of rock that triggers the “tsunami”..i believe its 1 huge chunk..if u get a brick..smash it into 10 pieces and drop the pieces in 1 at a time into a bucket of water..its going to be alot of little ripels..however if u get a whole brick and drop it in..the splash is going to be alot larger..something to think about…

  41. Emma Manus Popei says

    well on 60 munites, there was a professor or a doctor who had warned the people that there was likely to be a tsunami that was going to hit south east asia, this was about 6 months before it was going to happen. however people didn’t take that into consideration and act to the warning.
    the effect of tsunami will have a greater effect on land rather than sea. this is because the tidal wave/tsunami runs in the sea. however, as it comes towards land the sea becomes shallow and the waves cannot run under sea so they come on land in huge waves and crashes on land. try putting your hand (pum wide open) in water and push against the water from one end to another end. maybe this will help you have a wider view on what i am explaining.
    i beleive that places with reefs and corals are places most likely to avoid tsunami but who knows mother nature can takes it’s course somehow.

  42. Terri-ann says

    I’m confused. I’m a school student doing a project on tsunamis right now, and i have been asked to explain the difference between a tsunami and tidal wave. I don’t understand why there is a difference. I cant find anything saying that there is one!

  43. Well, theoretically a tidal wave is caused by tides, but in practice it’s always used to mean a tsunami, so in actual use I don’t think there is a difference.

  44. i like tidal waves

  45. I’m no liguist…. just wanted to add my bit of confusion to the discussion.
    What I remember being taught in grade school 25 years ago was that a tsunami was the wave as it traveled through the deep ocean then it became a tidal wave when it hit shore and the water was forced up.
    Am I the only one that was taught this or was this correct at one point in time during this battle of terms?

  46. In the story that I was told about Japan a great navy fleet, was coming to invaid Japan, a sea storm started and a tsunami, came out of the storm and destroid the fleet, hmm lets see storm not earthquake, not land falling into the sea. Did you also know that land falling into the sea makes a biger wave than a earthquake.

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