Around the web – August 2014

Did you know that until 8 BCE the old name for the month of August was Sextilus, Latin for “sixth month”? And that when we describe something as ‘august‘, we are saying it is majestic and inspires reverence or admiration? An auguste is also a type of clown with a white muzzle and eyes and a red nose. Anyway here’s your ‘August’ round-up of interesting articles about translation and language.


Typical aspects of an Auguste clown: red nose, white muzzle and eyes

  • Here’s a list of international linguistics-related conferences taking place between now and the end of the year.
  • With translators and interpreters in mind, at the beginning of the month Inbox Translate launched a resource of 3000+ glossaries.
  • How are the terms off-piste, off the beaten track/path, off base used differently in the USA and UK?
  • In the UK there are still hundreds of court cases requiring an interpreter that were disrupted in the first quarter as Capita continued to fall short of its required performance target. Read more.


  • How do you fare on this fiendishly difficult vocabulary quiz from The Guardian?
  • Are you a vocabulary expert? How many English words do you actually know? Test yourself.
  • Joke: what happens when a translator and Google translate walk into a bar? Find out.


Casse-pieds (pain in the butt): Your neighbour is getting on your nerves. What a “feet-breaker”.

Literal translations: if someone is getting on your nerves they’re a “feet-breaker” (casse-pieds) in French.

  • Le directeur d’un hôtel en Bretagne a appelé un directeur de hypermarché hispanophone pour servir d’interprète au coach argentin de l’OM durant une conférence de presse. Incroyable !
  • France Inter a diffusé une émission intitulé A la recherche des langues en danger. Vous avez jusqu’au 2 mai 2017 pour l’écouter …

Related articles:

Around the web – July 2014

Whether or not you’ve been on holiday recently you may have missed some interesting articles this past month about translation and language – here’s your round-up for July.

  • This article has a brief history of the French language in Quebec.
  • Thinking of doing a PhD in Translation? Here are some study topic suggestions.

from ’10 More Hilariously Terrible Translation Mistakes’

  • As freelancers we all face rejection at some point. How do you deal with it? Read about some strategies in Inbox Translation’s blog post.
  • A round-up of some ‘ultimate tips’ for translators, by translators.

from ’10 More Hilariously Terrible Translation Mistakes’


from ’10 More Hilariously Terrible Translation Mistakes’

  • Nominations are currently being accepted (until August 16th) for’s 2014 Community Choice Awards. These awards are hosted annually by to provide a means for the community to publicly recognise language professionals who are active, influential or otherwise outstanding in various media throughout the industry in separate translation and interpreting categories.



from ’15 Best French Expressions for Making Love’


Related articles:

Around the web – June 2014

On June 12th I was delighted to learn that I came 4th in the 2014 Ba.bla Language Twitterers competition, and 5th overall across all Language Lovers categories. You can see the full list here. Here are some other interesting blog posts and articles about language and translation that have been published on the web this past month and that you may have not have had time to see:

‘Wisteria’ was one word better known by women (89%) than men (61%).

language change & evolve


In French:


Related articles:

Around the web – May 2014

May is the month that saw me type my e-mail address (‘smartranslate’) in a text message and have the autocorrect turn it into ‘slave translator’! Anyway here’s a round-up of interesting articles about translation and language that have been published on the web during May and that you may have not have had time to see:

Screen Shot 2014-05-31 at 15.57.29

  • The recent BP14 was colleague’s Rachel Ball’s first international conference on translation. In this blog post she tells us what she learnt from it. In another post Rachel wondered when is a translator ever like a doctor?
  • Would you push a stranger off a bridge? A new study reveals that our moral standing is affected by whether we are reasoning in our native tongue, or in a foreign language.
  • Here are 10 slang phrases that perfectly encapsulate the age in which they were coined.
Austin Powers

The word ‘groovy’ began life meaning ‘conservative’

Recent Dorothy Perkins ad

Recent Dorothy Perkins ad

Don’t forget you have until June 9th to vote for your favourite language Twitterers, Bloggers, Facebookers and Youtubers! I’ve been nominated in the Twitter category. Read more about the competition here.

Related articles:

What’s In A (Fish) Name?

As a linguist and keen scuba-diver, when I first heard of a book about the etymology of fish names I could only but be interested! Given that one of the co-authors is Henriette Walter, whose book Honni Soit Qui Mal Y Pense is a favourite of mine, I was even more eager to read a copy of La Fabuleuse Histoire Du Nom Des Poissons. The book is written in French and mainly discusses French names, but the name of each fish is also given in English, German, Spanish and Italian along with an explanation of the etymology in each of these languages, which makes it even more interesting for a linguist. Here are some of the most intriguing facts I learnt:

  • Did you know the Baie Des Anges at Nice, in the South of France, takes it name from the angelshark? These sharks, known as ange de mer in French, once used to be common in the bay.
  • Rollmops are pickled herring fillets whose name comes from the German rollen (to roll) and mops (a pug). Apparently the rolled herring fillets look like the wrinkled dog’s head …
  • The name sardine comes from the island of Sardinia in the Mediterranean, as does the word sardonic. Whereas the current meaning of ‘sardonic’ is an expression of derisive, cynical or sceptical humour, it originally meant a rictus caused by ingesting the sardonion plant from Sardinia.
  • The name Grouper (sometimes called ‘groper’ in Australia) doesn’t come from any gregarious tendencies of this fish to group, but from the Portuguese garoupa, which itself probably comes from an Amerindian word.
  • Wrasses take their name from the Cornish word wrach which means ‘old woman’ or ‘hag’, and originally ‘witch’. Most wrasses are beautifully patterned, however some species have spotty colouring rather like old, wrinkled skin, which might explain this etymology. One enormous species of wrasse I’ve been lucky enough to see while diving is the Napoleon (also known as Humphead wrasse) which doesn’t take its name from the French Emperor but from a New Caledonian farmer called Louis Napoléon who collected these fish as trophies.
  • Damselfish are so-called due their bright colours and eye-catching movements, and Surgeonfish have dangerously sharp scalpel-like spines on either side of the tail.
  • The Moorish idol is common, but is also one of the most unusually named fish I’ve come across when diving. I learnt that the etymology comes from African Moors, who believed the fish to be a bringer of happiness or luck. Moluccan fishermen were also superstitious about it, and if they caught one would throw it back into the water after bowing and showing signs of respect.
Moorish idols

3 Moorish idols, Nosy Be, Madagascar, October 2013

  • I was fascinated to learn that Tilapia were known to the Ancient Egyptians (there’s even a tilapia hieroglyph). Their name comes from the Latinisation of the Tswana (Bantu) word for fish, thiape.
  • Here in Reunion swordfish are commonly fished and eaten, and predictably their name comes from their long, flat, sword-shaped bill. While in its original English version Hemingway‘s The Old Man and the Sea centres on the fisherman’s struggle with a giant marlin, the novel’s first French translator, Jean Dutourd, chose to translate ‘marlin’ as ‘swordfish’ (espadon in French), considering that the former was not well enough known in France at the time (1952).
  • Another common fish in the waters around Reunion, the marlin‘s name comes from ‘marlinspike‘, which is a sailor’s tool used in marine rope work. Marlins have a spear-like bill, and marlinspikes have a polished metal cone tapered to a point, hence the connection. ‘Marlinspike’ itself derives from from the practice of ‘marling’, that is winding small diameter twine called ‘marline’ around larger ropes to form protective whippings.
  • Did you think Lemon sole got its name from the citrus fruit? ‘Lemon’ is in fact a deformation of the French word limande (the same fish is called Limande in French) which itself comes from lime, meaning “[abrasive] file” referring to a former use of the fish’s skin.
  • I was once lucky enough to see a Mola Mola, the heaviest bony fish in the world, while diving in Bali. ‘Mola’ is latin for millstone, which the fish resembles because of its grey colour, rough texture, and rounded body. It is also called ‘sunfish’ in English due to it’s habit of ‘sunbathing’ at the surface of the water.  However most other European languages call it ‘moonfish’ in reference to its pale colour and rounded shape.
Mola Mola

Mola Mola

  • I’ve long been fascinated by coelacanths, rare fish occasionally found deep in the Mozambique Channel and Indonesia. Thought to be extinct until 1938, their name comes from the Greek words koilos ‘hollow’ and akantha ‘spine’ referring to the hollow caudal fin rays of the first fossil specimen described.
  • Not in the above-mentioned book but a beautiful etymology I learnt while diving in Madagascar last year is that of the whale shark (a filter-feeding shark, and the world’s largest fish species). In Malagasy it is called marokintana (‘many stars’) due to their spotted skin, which is unique to each individual.
Whale shark, Nosy Be, Madagascar, October 2013

Whale shark, Nosy Be, Madagascar, October 2013

Overall, the authors point out that composed fish names, e.g. goldfish, flying fish, clownfish, triggerfish etc., are much more common in the fish kingdom than in the mammal or bird world (they should know – the same authors also wrote similar books about bird and mammal names!).

With this post I have barely scratched the surface of this fascinating subject, but to finish I couldn’t resist listing some of the many English idioms we seem to have about fish:

  • a big fish in a small pond
  • a fine kettle of fish
  • like a fish out of water
  • fish for compliments
  • have bigger fish to fry
  • there are plenty more fish in the sea
  • shooting fish in a barrel
  • to be a cold fish
  • drink like a fish
  • something smells fishy
  • a queer fish
  • to be neither fish nor fowl


  • La fabuleuse histoire du nom des poissons – du tout petit poisson-clown au très grand requin blanc by Henriette Walter and Pierre Avenas, published by Robert Laffont, 2011, ISBN 978-2-221-11356-1
  • Coelacanth – the ‘fossil fish’ – a short blog post about this fascinating fish on my travel blog.
  • Fish Caught In Time – the Search for The Coelacanth by Samantha Weinberg, published by Perennial, 2000, ISBN 978-0-06-093285-5
  • Swim with the giant sunfish – a TED Talk about mola mola by marine biologist Tierney Thys
  • Our swim with a whale shark, Nosy Be, Madagascar, October 2013 (1’55” video)


Around the web – March 2014

Been busy this month? I’ve curated a number of interesting articles about translation and language that have been published on the internet this month and that you may have missed.

The thorny issue of dialects

The thorny issue of dialects

The Etiquettrix

The Etiquettrix


Related articles

Malagasy – the language of Madagascar

Recently returned from my fourth trip to Madagascar – the world’s fourth largest island – I thought I’d share with you some information about the Malagasy language.

The first people arrived in Madagascar about 1500 years ago from Indonesia/Malaya via Southern India and East Africa using outrigger canoes, and as a result Malagasy belongs to the Malayo-Polynesian language group. It’s the westernmost member of this language branch, which also includes Malaysian, Tagalog, Indonesian, Maori and Tahitian. The Indonesian origin shows strongly in the language, which is spoken and understood, with regional variations of dialect, throughout the island. The linguistic influence of later migrations from Africa can be seen in coastal populations, where there are slightly more Bantu-Swahili words than elsewhere on the island.

Outrigger canoe with sail

Outrigger canoe with sail

The British held some influence in the country in the early 19th century, resulting in words for some religious terms such as pastaora for ‘Pastor’ and words like hotely, boky (‘book’) and banky. The island was a French colony from 1896-1960 and French left a linguistic legacy in words such as bisikileta for ‘bicycle’, and savony for ‘soap’. (Other influences to be found are Arabic, for example, in the days of the week, and Bantu-Swahili in the words for domestic animals, indicating that the early settlers, sensibly enough, did not bring animals with them in their outrigger canoes.) Eighteen major dialects are spoken, the two main ones being Merina, which is considered standard Malagasy, and Sakalava (Ethnologue considers these dialects to be separate languages – see below).

Malagasy is a language full of images and metaphors, and the art of oratory, kabary, as well as poetic histories and legends are an important part of the culture. Literal translations of Malagasy words and phrases are often very poetic. Dusk is Maizim-bava vilany: ‘darken the mouth of the cooking pot'; two or three in the morning is Misafo helika ny kary: ‘when the wild cat washes itself’.

Although an Arabico-Malagasy script was in use from the 15th century onwards, in 1823 King Radama 1 opted for an alphabetisation with Latin characters. The Malagasy alphabet is made up of 21 letters; C Q U W and X are omitted, thus A E I and O are the only vowel sounds. When a word ends in a vowel, this final syllable is pronounced so lightly it is often just a stressed last consonant. For instance the Sifaka lemur is pronounced – rudely but memorably – as ‘she-fuck’.

Sifaka Lemur

Sentence structure is verb + object + subject; however many objects there are, the subject is always at the end. This is quite a rare word order – only 10% of the world’s languages place the verb in initial position, and only a dozen languages are known to regularly place the subject in final position. An example: mivarotra akondro izy, literally ‘sell’ (present tense) + ‘banana’ + ‘he/she’ i.e. ‘he/she sells bananas’. There is no grammatical gender or plural form – the article ny is used (like ‘the’ in English). There is no verb “to be” in Malagasy, so adjectives imply the use of ‘to be’ indirectly.

Malagasy can seem challenging for a visitor as for example place names may be 14 or 15 characters long (because they usually have a literal meaning, such as Ambohibao ‘the new village’, or Ranomafana ‘hot water’). Surnames are also very long – up to 24 letters – again because each part has a literal meaning, and traditionally there used to be only one name – no separate first name and family names – although European influences are now changing this.

Outside of Madagascar Malagasy is only spoken by any great number in Mayotte and the Comoros Islands. There is however at least one Malagasy loan word in English that everyone knows: raffia.

Useful links:

Further reading:

  • To read about an appeal to fund the translation of Shakespeare’s works into Malagasy and put on the plays click here (link automatically downloads a Word document).
  • The September 2010 edition of National Geographic has a long article on Madagascar and on rosewood logging in particular. You can see the article and a slideshow of pictures here.
  • In August 2010 the Al Jazeera TV channel broadcast a documentary entitled ‘State of Denial’ about the continuing political crisis in Madagascar, the lack of press freedom and the illegal rosewood logging. You can see the programme by clicking here.
  • The episode of BBC Radio 4’s ‘From Our Own Correspondent’ on 24th July 2010 featured the illegal trade in wildlife and logging of rosewood, and is available here; the item starts just under 18 minutes into the broadcast. The ‘Crossing Continents’ edition of 29th July 2010 described how Madagascar is coping with its current economic difficulties, and is available here.
  • My own travel articles about Madagascar: Nosy Be, Diving at Nosy Be, Tsingy of Bemaraha, and Ile Sainte Marie.

Food, glorious food!

A reference by Catherine Jan on Facebook to ‘Canadian bacon‘ being unknown as such in Canada got me thinking about misnamed food – food that is named after a place but actually has little or nothing to do with that same place. For example I grew up hearing the term ‘Swiss muesli’, but when I visited that country as a 15-year-old I was surprised to learn that local muesli was pretty different to what I’d grown up with!

Here’s a list of ‘misnamed’ food I’ve come up with – feel free to add more you may know of in the comments below.

  • Afghan biscuit – a New Zealand biscuit made from flour, butter, cornflakes, sugar and cocoa powder, topped with chocolate icing and a half walnut; the derivation of the name is unknown.
  • French toast – this combination of bread, eggs, and milk is known as “pain perdu” in France and many other French-speaking countries.
  • German chocolate cake – originally known as “German’s Chocolate Cake” because the recipe used (American) Sam German’s baking chocolate, at some point the apostrophe and “s” were dropped leaving just “German Chocolate Cake”.
German chocolate cake from a bakery

German chocolate cake

  • Jerusalem artichoke – an edible plant native to North America and wrongly associated with Jerusalem, perhaps because in Italian the plant, which resembles a sunflower was called Girasole Articiocco (“sunflower artichoke”).
  • London broil – a North American creation, this beef dish is grilled or broiled marinated steak , which is then sliced across the grain into thin strips. The origins of the name are unclear, but as a native Londoner I can confirm I’d never heard of this dish until very recently!
  • Moon Pie – in 1917 a bakery salesman from the Chattanooga Bakery visited a shop that catered to Tennessee coal miners where the miners said they needed a solid, filling snack to munch on when they couldn’t stop for lunch. When the salesman asked how big it should be, a miner framed the moon with his hands. Thus the result earned its name.

A Moon Pie

  • Mongolian beef – a dish served in Chinese-American restaurants; aside from the beef, none of the ingredients or the preparation methods are drawn from traditional Mongolian cuisine.
  • Spanish rice – a side dish made from white rice and other ingredients, and a part of Southwestern U.S. cuisine. The name is not used in either Spain or Mexico.
  • Swiss roll – this rolled cake originates from Central Europe, but not Switzerland as the name would suggest.


  • The Baked Alaska was so named to celebrate the purchase of the Alaska territory when this dessert was created at a New York City restaurant in 1876.
  • A Belgian waffle is a particular kind of waffle in North America, however no single type of waffle is identified as a ‘Belgian Waffle’ within Belgium itself, where there are a number of different varieties, including the Brussels waffle, the Liège waffle and the stroopwafel. What is known in North America as the ‘Belgian waffle’ does not exist in Belgium.
Brussels Waffle (known in the USA as Belgian W...

Brussels Waffle with Strawberries (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

  • Bombay duck, despite its name is actually a kind of fish dish, although it does originate from the Mumbai region, where it is known as “Bombil fry“.
  • Brazil nuts – while the tree, Bertholletia excelsa, that produces these nuts can be found in Brazil, it’s native to all South American countries, and it’s Bolivia that produces the most of them.
  • The Danish pastry is actually of Viennese origin. In Denmark, Iceland and other Scandanvian countries it is called “wienerbrød” (literally “Viennese bread”), and in Vienna it is referred to as “Plundergebäck” or “Golatschen“!
Danish Pastry

Danish Pastry

  • Greek yoghurt is strained yoghurt, but in Greece yoghurt is typically not strained.
  • Jaffa cakes (actually a kind of biscuit!) take their name from the Jaffa oranges used to make them, not directly from the Israeli city.
  • The root vegetable swede is actually known as kålrot (literally “cabbage/kale root”) in Sweden.

On a final note, living in a French-speaking country I’ve sometimes been asked in French if I want some “cake” or “pudding” [sic]. Over the years I’ve come to know that these refer to specific cakes and a dessert in French cuisine, but at first I was rather taken aback by the use of the generic wide-ranging English term for something that actually turned out to be quite specific.

P.S. From 22-24 May 2014 the Department of Interpreting and Translation (DIT) of the University of Bologna will hold the First International Conference on Food and Culture in Translation. It will take place in Bertinoro, a tiny hamlet above the town of Forlimpopoli, home to the 19th century Italian food critic, food guru and gourmet, Pellegrino Artusi, author of the book: The Science of Cooking and the Art of Eating Well. You can read more about the conference here.

“SAfrican” English

Did you know South Africa is the country with the most official languages in the world?* With 11 official languages that cover over 98% of native tongues spoken in the country it’s very linguistically diverse. In order of prevalence these languages are: Zulu (22.7%), Xhosa (16%), Afrikaans (13.5%), English (9.6%), Northern Sotho (9.1%), Tswana (8%), Southern Sotho (7.6%), Xitsonga (4.5%), Swati (2.5%), Tshivenda (2.4%), and Ndebele (2.1%) (note that English only arrives in 4th position; the percentages refer to speakers of the main language at home). I was in South Africa and Swaziland for a great holiday at the beginning of this month and I noticed that not everything is translated into all official languages – forms, brochures and timetables are normally only in English and Afrikaans, while for road signs it seems to vary according to location.

Afrikaans developed from the dialect spoken by Dutch settlers who arrived in South Africa in the 16th century, and was considered a Dutch dialect (called ‘Cape Dutch’) until the 19th century. In 1925 it became one of the country’s official languages, and today is spoken by 6 million people.

English is spoken as a mother tongue by about 5 million people, and is the dominant language in government and media. It has undergone some changes in South Africa: new words have been appropriated from Afrikaans or indigenous African languages, while other words have changed meaning. Grammar, spelling and vocabulary tend to be more British than American. Below are some South African English words I came across during my trip; for more complete lists see the links at the bottom of the post.

  • bakkie  – a pick-up truck, a utility truck/ute.
  • biltong – dried and salted meat, similar to beef jerky, although it can be made from ostrich, kudu or any other red meat.

Male kudu, Kruger Park

  • bioscope – a cinema or movie theatre, originally a defunct English word that survived longer in South Africa because of the influence of the Afrikaans word, bioskoop, but is now dated.
  • boma – a livestock enclosure, a stockade or kind of fort, or a district government office.
  • braai – an outdoor barbecue, where meat such as steak, chicken and boerewors (traditional Afrikaaner spicy sausage) are cooked, served with pap (porridge made from maize meal) and bredie (stew).
  • Howzit? – How are you?
  • Ja – commonly used for ‘yes’.
  • Jozi – the city of Johannesburg, South Africa’s largest city, also known as Jo’burg.

Orlando Towers, Soweto, Johannesburg

  • laaitie – one’s own child, or used to refer to a young person as a lightweight or inexperienced in something particular.
  • lekker – nice, (very) good, great, cool, enjoyable, delicious or tasty.
  • naartjie – the South African word for tangerine, Citrus reticulata.
  • robots – traffic lights.
  • rondavel – literally “round hovel”, a round free-standing building with a thatched roof.
  • shebeen – an unlicensed drinking establishment (originally illegal) in black townships (large, planned settlements of blacks and coloureds, a legacy of the apartheid era and often lacking infrastructure).
  • taxi – can be a taxicab, but generally means a shared minibus used to transport a large number of people.
  • tekkies/takkies – sneakers, trainers, running shoes.

Some Afrikaans words have also entered the English language:

  • aardvark – literally means “earth pig”.
  • apartheid – literally “apart-ness” in Afrikaans, apartheid was the policy of racial separation, and the resulting oppression of the black majority, implemented by the National Party from 1948 to 1990.
  • Boer – literally “farmer”, shortened from Trekboer; Boers were the first Dutch who trekked into the interior of the country.
  • meerkat – literally means “lake cat“.
  • rooibos – literally Afrikaans for red bush, this popular South African tea made from the Cyclopia genistoides bush.
  • spoor – is anything that shows signs of an animal, and literally means “tracks” or “footprints”.
  • springbok – literally “jumping antelope”.
  • veld – a generic term for certain wide open spaces, it comes from the Cape Dutch word veldt.
  • wildebeest – derived from Cape Dutch, literally “wild cattle”.

Wildebeest, Kruger Park

Are you South African, or have you lived in or visited South Africa? What’s your favourite word or expression? Please share in the comments below!

Further reading:

In June 2010 the Macmillan Dictionary Blog posted a series of articles as part of South African English month. You can find these articles here.

* according to the Guinness Book of Records – see here.

Brewing up a storm

Often all too easily and quickly labelled ‘paradise’ there’s a tendency to forget that tropical parts of the world, due to their climate, can be periodically subject to devastating cyclones. As the 2012-2013 cyclone season draws, theoretically, to a close in my part of the world – the south-west Indian Ocean – here are some cyclone-related language facts I’ve rounded up.

  • ‘Cyclone’, ‘typhoon’, and ‘hurricane’ and are all different words for the same phenomena, used in the Indian, Pacific, Atlantic Oceans respectively. ‘Cyclone’ is also used in Australia & Indonesia, and ‘hurricane’ in the Caribbean, Gulf of Mexico, and eastern North Pacific. (Note that as I live in the Indian Ocean I’ve used the term ‘cyclone’ throughout this post).
  • Etymologically ‘cyclone’ comes from the Ancient Greek kyklon “moving in a circle, whirling around,” present participle of kykloun “move in a circle, whirl,” from kyklos “circle”. In the modern world it was first used in 1848 by a British East India Company official, Henry Piddington, to describe the devastating storm of December 1789 in Coringa, India [1].

Cyclone Gamede hit Reunion in 2007 and broke most of the world’s rainfall records (already held by Reunion!).

  • ‘Hurricane’ is a partially deformed adaptation from the Spanish huracan/furacan from an Arawakan (W. Indies) word for the Taino storm god Juracán, whom the Taínos believed dwelled on El Yunque mountain and, when he was upset, sent the strong winds and rain upon them. In Portuguese, it became furacão. The OED records 39 different spellings, mostly from the late 16th century, including forcane, herrycano, harrycain, hurlecane. The modern form became frequent from 1650, and established after 1688. Shakespeare uses hurricano (in “King Lear” and “Troilus and Cressida”), but in reference to waterspouts. [2] [3]
  • The word typhon (Τυφῶνexists in Ancient Greek, personified as a giant, father of the winds, perhaps from typhein “to smoke”. The current meaning of the word, in reference to titanic storms in the East Indies, first appears in Europe in Portuguese in the mid-16th century. It is probably of Sinitic origin, Mandarin 大风 (dàfēng, “big wind”), Cantonese 大風 (daai fung, “big wind”), via Arabic طوفان (ṭūfān), Persian  توفان (tufân), and Hindi तूफ़ान (tūfān) meaning “big cyclonic storm.” So although the Arabic word sometimes is said to be from the Greek it is unrelated and the latter has likely contaminated the eastern word. [4] [5]

What’s in a name?

Why name cyclones? Due to their long-term persistence, and the need for a unique identifier in issuing forecasts and warnings, cyclones are given names to ease communication between forecasters and the general public regarding forecasts, watches, and warnings. Since cyclones can often last a week or longer and more than one can occur in the same basin at the same time, names can reduce the confusion about which cyclone is being described. According to one source [6], the first use of a proper name for a cyclone was by an Australian forecaster early in the 20th century who named them “after political figures whom he disliked. By properly naming a hurricane, the weatherman could publicly describe a politician (who perhaps was not too generous with weather-bureau appropriations?) as ‘causing great distress’ or ‘wandering aimlessly about the Pacific.'”! The official practice of naming cyclones started in 1945; until then as well as annoying politicians they had been named after mythological creatures, saints and place names. Generally cyclones are named when they are judged to have sustained windspeeds of 65 km/h, although at this stage they will still only be a ‘tropical storm’ and not yet a ‘cyclone’.

A consequence of cyclone Dumile, January 2013, Reunion Island

  • North Atlantic - cyclones are named by the U.S. National Hurricane Center. Six lists of names, alternating between masculine and feminine, are used in alphabetical order, and maintained by the World Meteorological Organization with them rotating on a yearly basis.
  • Eastern Pacific - there are two Regional Specialized Meteorological Centers (RSMCs) who assign names, in Miami and Honolulu. Should a cyclone pass from one area of responsibility to another it retains its original name.
  • Southern Pacific – cyclones are named by the Regional Specialized Meteorological Center in Nadi, Fiji (RSMC Nadi).  Cyclones that move into the Australian region retain their original name.
  • Australian Region – there are 5 different official Tropical Cyclone Warning Centers who assign names to cyclones (Jakarta, Port Moresby, Perth, Darwin, or Brisbane). However as three of the warning centres are run by the Bureau of Meteorology of Australia, only 3 lists of names exist.  In Australia the names are assigned in alphabetical order, alternating between masculine and feminine names, with the lists used in rotating order without regard to year. A name may be skipped if it is not deemed appropriate when it is due to be used (e.g. it is the same as the name of a public figure who is in the news for a sensitive or controversial reason)!

Images of the seven tropical cyclone “basins” where storms occur on a regular basis around the world and the Regional Speciliazed Meteorological Centers in charge.

For all of the cases above significant cyclones have their names retired from the lists with a replacement name selected at the next World Meteorological Organization (WMO), Regional Association IV Hurricane Committee meeting.

  • Northwestern Pacific Ocean – there are two separate agencies who assign names to cyclones which often results in a cyclone having two names. The Japan Meteorological Agency (JMA) names cyclones to the north of the equator between the 180° and 100°E. Names are contributed by the 14 states or territories members of the ESCAP/WMO Typhoon Committee who each submit 10 names, which are used in alphabetical order, by the English name of the country. The Philippine Atmospheric, Geophysical and Astronomical Services Administration assigns names to cyclones which move into or form in their area of responsibility (135°-115°E and 5°-25°N) even if the cyclone has had a name assigned to it by the JMA.
  • North Indian Ocean basin – the Regional Specialised Meteorological Centre in New Delhi has assigned names since 2006. There is no retirement of cyclone names here as the list of names is only scheduled to be used once before a new list of names is drawn up. Should it move into the basin from the Western Pacific it retains its original name.
  • South-west Indian Ocean – the Regional Specialized Meteorological Centre on Réunion Island decides when to name a cyclone. However it is the Sub-Regional Tropical Cyclone Advisory Centres in Mauritius and Madagascar who actually name the systems. Mauritius names the cyclone should it intensify between 55°-90°E; and between 30°-55°E Madagascar assigns the name. New name lists are used every year, whilst a name is normally only used once thus no names are retired.

Track map of all storms in the 2012–13 South-West Indian Ocean cyclone season. The points show the location of the storm at 6-hour intervals.

After a few relatively quiet years this year’s cyclone season has been pretty active in the SW Indian Ocean, as you can see from the map above. Nine systems were named.

A few proverbs and sayings based on storms:

  • “Any port in a storm”
  • “In the eye of a storm”
  • “Storm in a teacup” (Incir cekirdegini doldurmaz – “Storm in a walnut shell” in Turkish)
  • “Whoever sows wind shall harvest storm.”

Finally I’d like to leave you with the following links:

Do you live in a cyclone-prone part of the world? Do you have any storm-related proverbs to add to the list? Let me know in the comments.

Further reading:

Sri Lanka official sorry for name of cyclone Mahasen – Sri Lanka‘s top meteorologist has publicly apologised for the naming of a recent deadly cyclone after a revered third century ruler, King Mahasen.


[1] [2] [4]

[3] [5]

[6] Dunn, G.E. and B.I. Miller (1960): Atlantic Hurricanes, Louisiana State Univ. Press, Baton Rouge, Louisiana, 377pp, quoted here.