Make Puerto Rico “Rich” Again

On the blog, I normally zoom in on words that are hogging our headlines. This post, though, I’m stuck on a word—two actually, and a proper noun at that—that have been far too much neglected. I’m talking about Puerto Rico, where millions of Americans are struggling to survive the devastating blow of Hurricane Maria.

Speaking of flags… (Pixabay)

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Irma: a storm, and etymology, of terrifying size and power

Floridians are bracing for Irma, one of the most powerful hurricanes ever recorded in the Atlantic Ocean and which has already left extensive destruction in its Caribbean wake—and the origin of the storm’s moniker is all too cruelly appropriate for its wrath and path. 

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Hurricane Irma superimposed over the state of Ohio. Screenshot from @jdrudd.

Irma’s sound and fury

According to Oxford’s Dictionary of First Names, the name Irma is a pet form of various names of Germanic origin beginning with the element ermen, meaning “whole, entire, universal.” That’s too apt, as meteorologists are helping us grasp the terrifying size of this monster storm by showing Irma is larger than the whole of the state of Ohio.

Another familiar ermen-based is Emma. Emma was brought to the English-speaking world by Emma of Normandy (985–1052), who gave birth to Edward the Confessor in her marriage to Æthelred the Unready. 

Less immediately familiar is Emmerich, a Germanic name often explained as literally meaning “universal power,” joining to ermen the root rich, “ruler.” This root, via various Germanic and Italic paths, is related to a host of English words, including right, realm, regal, and yes, the very words rich and ruler.

In Medieval Italian, the name Emmerich apparently became Amerigo, famously borne by the Italian explorer Amerigo Vespucci (1454–1512). Vespucci demonstrated that the New World—in that old European orientation—was not Asia but its own landmass. A Latinized version of his name gives us America, remembered in both the northern and southern continents and, of course, the U. S. of A.

With a storm like Irma, its seems the whole world is reaching out—whether with thoughts or aid—to everyone affected in the Americas by her winds and waters.

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“Torrential”: a cruelly ironic etymology

There’s only one way to describe the rain deluging Houston, Texas in the wake of Hurricane Harvey this week: torrential. Nearly thirty inches have already fallen over parts of the city as of Monday night, and 20 more inches are still expected.

The frequent co-occurrence of these two words, torrential and rain, is called collocation by linguists, and we’ve seen it before in my post on rampant, which is so often coupled with corruption. We’re also seeing collocation at work in Houston’s catastrophic flooding.

But how about the word torrential itself? Where does it come from?

Torrential is like a torrent, originally said of streams. (Pixabay)

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It’s been 10 years since Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans and regions along the Gulf Coast. This past month, many news organizations have been reflecting on Katrina – and lessons we’ve learned from it – as the region continues to recover and rebuild. Are there any lessons in the origin of the word hurricane?

"Hurricane." A Taino depiction of of storm goddess Guabancex. Ink on paper. Doodle by @andrescalo.
“Hurricane.” A depiction of the swirling-armed Taíno storm goddess, Guabancex, who commanded the ferocious storms. Ink on paper. Doodle by @andrescalo.


According to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), the earliest evidence of hurricane actually comes in two forms: furacane and haurachana. These words appear in British scholar Richard Eden’s 1555 translation of some important historical works that chronicle Spain’s exploration – er, colonization – of the Americas. One of the works, Peter Martyr d’Anghiera’s De orbe novo decades, gives the Spanish huracán; the other, Oviedo’s La natural hystoria de las Indias, gives furacán.

Why were there two forms? In a phonological process called debuccalization, Spanish changed certain word-initial Latin f’s to h’s around the 16th century. So, Latin’s facere (“to do”) became Spanish’s hacerfabulari (“to say”) became hablar. But huracán/furacán aren’t from Latin, though the pair documents subsequent switching of and f spread by the sound shift. Huracán/furacán, rather, come from the Caribbean.

Indigenous to the Caribbean were the Arawak people, including a subgroup, the Taíno, who inhabited the Greater Antilles. Spanish colonization decimated their population, but not without first taking some language, of course. In Taíno mythology, the anger of the goddess Guabancex unleashed powerful storms, or huraca’n – sometimes personified itself as an evil god of chaos, possibly derived from a powerful Mayan creator deity of wind, fire, and storms, Hurakan. Guabancex commanded Guatabá, who brought thunder and lightning, and Coatrisquie, who brought floods, forming a formidable trio that wreaked meteorological havoc.

Very sadly, I can’t pull down a dictionary of Taíno or Mayan etymology from my shelf, so I can’t speak to the deeper origins of huraca’n or Hurakan with any certainty. But the Mayan Hurakan is said to mean “one-legged,” as he was so physically manifested, while some Taíno indigenous culture and heritage websites break down huraca’n as “center of the wind” (hura, “wind”; c’an, “center”).

Whatever the particular origin of hurricane, both Hurakan and Guabancex wielded the destructive power of hurricanes, but both were also associated with creation. Hurakan helped create the world in Mayan cosmology. Some consider Guabancex the destructive face of the Taíno supreme being, complementary to the creative forces of nature.

Neither etymology nor mythology can restore New Orleans as it was before Hurricane Katrina. Nor do their insights necessarily bring any consolation. But perhaps they can remind us of some fundamental lessons of nature – human nature included – that mythology’s dualities capture so well: Out of destruction can come the chance to make new, to make better. Out of destruction can come creation.

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