El Niño, Tornados, Hurricanes: Where Do The Names Of Extreme Weather Come From?

Language for a dark and stormy night.
Extreme weather names represented by a water spout caused by a tornado at sea, with a small island in the foreground.

Since we have been dealing with the catastrophic effects of global warming, media worldwide have been paying increasing attention to weather phenomena. That’s a good thing! Because in the fight against its consequences, joint human action and widespread knowledge in this area are necessary. Recently, the number one topic has been the phenomenon of El Niño, i.e. the increased temperature of Pacific waters, which causes extreme weather events in various parts of the world. In the following text, we will define these phenomena and investigate the origin of their names. This could be an “etymological storm” that will shake up your existing knowledge!

Where Do Extreme Weather Events Get Their Names?

El Niño

El Niño is the elevated, above-average temperature of Pacific waters around the equator, which influences such weather phenomena as droughts in North and South America, downpours and floods in Asia, and a sharp rise in the average annual temperature for the entire globe.

Etymology: El Niño is Spanish for “a boy,” or “a child.” The name is taken from the season during which the phenomenon is triggered, which is around Christmas. Interestingly, the opposite of El Niño is La Niña, or “the little girl” in Spanish. In nature, it means an above-average decrease in the temperature of Pacific waters.


A tornado is a funnel-like vortex of air that touches the earth’s surface at the bottom and clouds of rain at the top. Because of its shape, another name for this phenomenon is a whirlwind. On May 3, 1999, Canada was hit by a tornado with wind gusts up to about 482 kilometers per hour, setting a record for measurements that has not been surpassed to this day.

Etymology: the name comes from the Spanish word tornar, meaning “to turn,” or “to spin.” According to some sources, the term “tornado” was first used in the mid-16th century, when explorers of the time saw with their own eyes a tornado in the Pacific Ocean.


A hurricane is a wind that blows at speeds above 115 kilometers per hour. The phenomenon is often given names, such as Katrina, which wreaked extraordinary havoc in New Orleans in 2005. Allegedly, residents of the areas through which the destructive winds will travel feel more awe of the hurricane having a name. Until the 1970s, these were exclusively women’s names. However, under the influence of the feminist movement, hurricanes also began to be given male names. Interestingly, there is complete freedom in naming this phenomenon. The same hurricane may have a different name in different parts of the globe.

Etymology: researchers say the word “hurricane” is derived from the language of the Native American people, the Taines. They used the phrase hurucane to describe the “evil spirit of the wind.” The Spaniards, on the other hand, who borrowed the word, used hurakán to refer to a “deity responsible for storms and bad weather.”


Typhoon is the name used in the context of hurricanes occurring in East and Southeast Asia. An interesting fact about typhoons is that there is a so-called eye of the cyclone in the middle of them, which is not covered by clouds. There is a windless silence within it, as the surface winds that converge toward the center ultimately do not reach it.

Etymology: the name is derived from the Chinese 大風 (tai fung), meaning “strong wind from the South China Sea and Pacific Ocean.”


A tsunami, according to the International Information Center for the Information Society for the Environment at UNESCO, is a series of unusually high and long ocean waves caused by an underwater earthquake. The tsunami phenomenon was already known in ancient times. Specialists at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration say the volcano under the island of Santorini at the time fired with the force of four atomic bombs, spewing 150 billion tons of rock into the air. The explosion triggered a gigantic wave that claimed the lives of more than 100,000 people and destroyed the Minoan civilization on Crete and neighboring islands.

Etymology: the name is derived from the Japanese word 津波 (tsu nami), where the first part means “harbor” or “haven,” and the second part means “wave.”


A drought is a season with little or no precipitation, often characterized by very high temperatures. One of the longest recorded droughts to date is the Dust Bowl in the United States, a period between 1931 and 1938 when 19 American states went without rainfall. This in turn led to the largest internal migration in U.S. history. According to some estimates, the drought and dust storms have forced more than 2.5 million Americans to leave their homes and settle in a new place.

Etymology: drought is derived from Old English drūgath, meaning “dryness.”


Blizzards are wind gusts that carry snow without simultaneous precipitation. The word snow derives from the Proto-Slavic period (sněgъ) and is found in all Slavic languages.

Etymology: the origin of the word blizzard is unclear. There is a theory that it may be derived from Scottish Gaelic and means “a sudden gust of wind.” In contrast, there are those who trace its roots to the German word blitzartig, meaning “in the shape of lightning.” It’s much easier to determine when it was first used in the modern sense. On March 14, 1870, an American newspaper published a text about a snowstorm in Iowa. To describe it, the journalist used the word blizzard.

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