- Typhoon reaches English–translated from the Italian, itself from the Portuguese tufão–in the late 1580s, and its various spellings point to various possible sources
- Typhoon may be from the Arabic tufan (“violent storm of wind and rain”), related to tafa (“to turn around”)
- It may also be from the Greek typhon (“whirlwind” and name of a monstrous, giant god), related to typhein (“smoke,” as in vapor)
- Chinese might have influence, too, with ta feng (Mandarin dàfēng or 大風), meaning “big wind”
It’s hard to comprehend the devastation that Typhoon Haiyan has visited upon the Philippines this November. But for far too many, there is no comprehension. There’s only experience–brutal experience.
At the Mashed Radish, I use etymology as a lens through which to view human experience, or at least the ways words might structure that experience. This effort seems so small when it comes to the more extreme experiences that test–nay, defy– comprehension. My musings offer utterly no material aid, and I’m not going to pretend the little insights I kick up do much for solidarity.
But perhaps there is some tiny truth in the origin of typhoon that can help us better attend to Haiyan’s aftermath.
Of all the words I have traced so far, I don’t think any has shown as diverse a possible lineage as typhoon. Meteorologically, typhoons, hurricanes, and cyclones are all strong tropical cyclones, but they occur in different geographic regions. A typhoon strikes the northwest Pacific ocean west of the dateline. And it has carried this distinction–well, its distinction as a violent, massive storm in the East, especially in India or in the China Sea–for some time in the English language.
Since 1588, to be precise, when a Thomas Hickock, an English merchant traveling the Mediterranean Sea, translated the Viaggio (shortened title), written in 1587 by the Venetian merchant Cesare de Fedrici after 18 years of travel in the East. As the OED cites Hickcock:
I went a boord of the Shippe of Bengala, at which time it was the yeere of Touffon…This Touffon or cruell storme endured three dayes and three nightes.
Likely by way of the Portuguese tufão, this touffon may derive from tufan, which in Urdu (and Arabic, Persian, and Hindi), refers to a “violent storm of wind and rain,” as the OED defines it. The Online Etymology Dictionary adds that al-tufan “occurs several times in the Koran for a ‘flood or a storm’ and also for Noah’s flood.” At root may be the Arabic tafa, meaning “to turn around.”
However, some have traced tufan back to the Greek typhon, meaning “whirlwind” and personified as a god of the same name. Weekely describes Typhon as a “giant, father of the winds, buried under Mount Etna.” Apparently, this winged, coiling Typhon also had a hundred heads (sometimes depicted as bull, lion, leopard, or snake heads), had two vipers for legs, had fifty serpent heads for each hand, and breathed fire–not to mention the fact that he fathered Cerberus, Sphinx, Hydra, and Chimera, among other monsters. The OED also notes that this name is shared by an ancient, evil Egyptian deity.
Typhon likely comes from the Greek verb typhein, or “smoke.” Typhus and typhoid are indeed related: Greek has typhos (blind, stupor caused by fever). As might be related the two cognates thyme and fume, some have suggested.
The English language presents other forms of the word–tuffoon and tay-fun, among other spellings–that point to a Chinese influence. Chinese has ta feng, with ta meaning “big” and feng “wind.” In today’s traditional Mandarin, we would see dàfēng, or 大風. This is the same feng in “feng shui.” But there is little harmony in this feng.
As I recall from my too brief studies of basic Chinese in college, the character dà pictographically resembles a man with outstretched arms. A fathom, if you will. But within the character for “wind,” it turns out, is the character for “insect.” Scholars posit some explanations for this: a likeness between the wind and bugs, sharing speed and changing directionality; or an ancient belief that the wind carries illness, either because it carries bugs or inflicts illness like bugs can.
Judge not this ancient etiology. We call germs “bugs.” We refer to getting sick as “catching a bug.” And what about the cold–rooted in the belief that being exposed to the cold (and all its chilly winds) can cause sickness? Oh, and there’s that whole matter of airborne communicability, you know, like tuberculosis.
Who has the final word: Arabic, Greek, Chinese? While the Greek has no apparent connection to the Chinese, it seems typhon has influenced the spelling of English typhoon. There could be a case for the Chinese making its way west. And it seems reasonable to consider an interaction between the Greek and the Arabic. But, ultimately, we aren’t certain.
Our words so often fall short. We grope for ways to express–to give name to–the most extreme of our experiences. But within our words are stories of our attempts to explain these experiences. The Greek giant Typhon–making sense of natural calamities, of why bad things happen and why the world is as it is, in terms of mythic dramas involving divine actors. Or infectious Chinese winds–folklore of evil sprits yet closer to our modern scientific understanding than we ever imagined.
And yet at the same time events such as Typhoon Haiyan speak for themselves. Perhaps as typhoon spoke for itself as it travelled from Urdu and Hindi and Arabic and Greek to the Portuguese and the English. Or in Chinese, where its story is as direct as it can get: “big wind.”