Fast Mash

  • Tornado is first attested as ternado in the late 16th-c. 
  • First referred to tropical Atlantic thunderstorms; sense of rotating funnel clouds came about in 1700-1800s 
  • Probably a bad borrowing by navigators/seamen/travelers from Spanish tronada (thunderstorm, related to English thunder)
  • Later forms flipped the and the r, probably under the influence of Spanish tornar (turn, related to English turn)

One thing is certain: A tornado wreaked destruction on Moore, OK just over a week ago. As I have been following the news of such tremendous loss and damage, of such profound recovery and resilience, I couldn’t help but wonder about the origin of tornado, trivial and petty as my musings seem in the face of the disaster. It turns out, no pun intended, that its origin isn’t quite  so certain.


In 1589, as documented by the OED, Richard Hakluyt—an English geographer, writer, and ardent champion of English colonial expansion, particularly in North America—wrote in his Principall Navigations, Voiages, and Discoveries of the English Nation*:

The we had terrible thunder and lightning, with exceeding great gusts of raine called Ternados.

The word took a number of different forms over the next centuries, including tornathoturnado, and tournatho, settling into its current spelling by the 1800s. And, the OED notes, navigators used the word to refer to torrential, gusty tropical thunderstorms in the Atlantic. In the 17th-c., these navigators used the term to name the entire season in which such storms were common, although this usage is now obsolete,  though we do say “tornado season” in the States.

Overtime, the rain and thunder elements receded while that of rotation and wind ascended. The turn, so to speak, seems to take place in the early 1600s. The OED documents the following from Samuel Purchas, an English cleric and complier of travel accounts, in his Pilgrimes (1625):

We met with winds which the Mariners call The Turnadoes, so variable and vncertaine, that sometime within the space of one houre, all the two and thirtie seuerall winds will blow. These winds were accompanied with much thunder and lightning, and with extreme rayne.

The OED observes that the rise of spellings using u and -or– seems to correspond with usages that emphasize the storm’s windy whirling. Indeed, in the early 1700s, the word was naming rotatory storms in West Africa and, in the late 1800s, the narrow-pathed funnel-clouds we know all too well in the Midwest and South today.

It fascinates me to end how new experiences, new concepts, new contact—with different lands and different people—necessitates new language. But seldom do we invent new terms out of thin air. We steal, we borrow, we appropriate, we adapt. And English has proven itself particularly adept at this.

So, where was tornado ultimately taken from?

While -ado certainly betokens Spanish or Portuguese (where it functions as the past participle ending of certain verbs, from the Latin -atus; cf. French -ade, as in paradecrusade, and many others), neither tornado nor any its previous forms shows up in those languages. So, etymologists posit a few things:

  1. The word was a “mangled borrowing” from Spanish tronada (thunderstorm, from the verb tronar and Latin tonare, to thunder. English thunder is related.).
  2. The o‘s and r‘s got flipped, a little thing called metathesis (pretty and *purty, ask and *aks)
  3. This flipping was influenced by Spanish tornar, which means to turn, return. This verb is from Latin, tornare, to turn on a lathe, from tornus, a lathe. English turn is related.

Yes, I totally had to look up what, exactly, a lathe is. And this completes a full turn: tornadoes destroy, lathes  help rebuild.

*Speaking of whirlwinds, the full title of  Hakluyt’s afore-quoted book is:

The Principall Navigations, Voiages, and Discoveries of the English Nation: Made by Sea or Over Land to the Most Remote and Farthest Distant Quarters of the Earth at Any Time within the Compasse of These 1500 Years: Divided into Three Several Parts According to the Positions of the Regions Whereunto They Were Directed; the First Containing the Personall Travels of the English unto Indæa, Syria, Arabia … the Second, Comprehending the Worthy Discoveries of the English Towards the North and Northeast by Sea, as of Lapland … the Third and Last, Including the English Valiant Attempts in Searching Almost all the Corners of the Vaste and New World of America … Whereunto is Added the Last Most Renowned English Navigation Round About the Whole Globe of the Earth

And you thought all those subtitles so in vogue today were bad. In all fairness, though, I’d venture that  writers of those early texts didn’t conceive of such cumbersome titles as titles, but previews or outlines. Perhaps proto-blurbs or proto-tables of contents. Interesting plural #ftw. Self-reference #ftw.

m ∫ r ∫