Hurricane Alex is starting to dwindle, yet it is currently drenching Northern Mexico and causing serious damage. Other storms will turn into hurricanes before we know it, potentially causing catastrophes and very likely pushing the toxic petroleum goo in the Gulf of Mexico deeper and further into the ocean.
Are hurricanes, cyclones and typhoons distinct meteorological phenomena or just different names for the same horrible type of storm?
The easiest explanation begins with cyclones. This is the clearest and most precise definition: “a large-scale, atmospheric wind-and-pressure system characterized by low pressure at its center and by circular wind motion.” And here’s the inevitable bizarre aspect: cyclones spin “counterclockwise in the Northern Hemisphere, clockwise in the Southern Hemisphere.” For more information on the physics involved, check out anticyclones.
When you get a tropical cyclone that turns violent, the weird word blender starts spinning too. In Australia, it’s called a willy-willy. In the U.S., it’s a hurricane, and in the Southern Pacific, a typhoon.
The naming process for tropical storms is fascinating and way too complex to address here, but this article provides a good explanation. Instead, follow us into the tempestuous etymology of hurricane and typhoon.
Hurricane travels a convoluted road through the Spanish furacão, back to the Mayan god Huracan, a deity of storms and fire.
Typhoon makes the etymology of hurricane seem like a short, straight road. Two separate but similar-sounding words, the Greek typhon and the Chinese taaîfung, were gradually squished together to form the current typhoon. Typhon is a word with the etymological equivalent of frequent flier miles: it made its way into Urdu, Arabic, and various European languages. It’s easy to see why: Typhon was a semi-divine monster in Greek mythology that was the personification of storms, and the father of all monsters, including the Sphinx (like the Egyptian statue,) Cerberus (the three-headed dog,) and the Nemean Lion (a super lion that Hercules had to kill.)
As if a hurricane isn’t scary enough.