Answer Man

Explanation of storm-name origins can have you going in circles

Hurricane Matthew off the coast of Haiti in September.
Hurricane Matthew off the coast of Haiti in September.

Q: What is the difference between a hurricane, cyclone and typhoon? Bottom line is they all mess things up, and now it’s messing with my mind as to why we need so many words to describe the same kind of storm.

L.T., of Collinsville

A: Hmm, readers say my answers sometimes (often?) get too windy, so this should be right up my alley. In this case, however, the only difference among the three storms is the same one Realtors use to describe the three most important attributes of a property for sale: location, location, location.

To be scientific, meteorologists call this kind of storm a tropical cyclone no matter where in the world it forms. To rate such a designation, this low-pressure system must have wind speeds of at least 74 mph and be churning over subtropical or tropical water. Before it reaches its most dangerous state, it’s known as a tropical depression (winds up to 39 mph) and then a tropical storm (winds 39 to 74 mph).

But, as you know, once it reaches its full ferocity, its name changes dramatically depending on where it is raging.

If it’s in the North Atlantic, Northeast Pacific east of the International Date Line, or the South Pacific east of 160 degrees east longitude, it’s called a hurricane. If it’s in the Northwest Pacific west of the date line, it’s known as a typhoon. And if it’s in the Southwest Pacific west of 160 degrees east longitude or Southeast Indian Ocean east of 90 degrees east longitude, it’s a severe tropical cyclone, category 3 cyclone or, usually, just plain cyclone.

There you have it. That’s the only difference. So why can’t everybody simply agree on one term? Apparently, each one may have arisen in a specific area, so it may be a matter of pride of ownership no matter how nasty those storms have been to residents.

“Hurricane,” for example, comes from the indigenous Taino people of the Caribbean and Florida. Huricán was the Carib Indian god of evil, which apparently was derived from Huracán, the Mayan god of wind, storm and fire. When Spanish explorers were passing through the Caribbean many centuries ago, they began calling the fearsome storms “huracáns,” which remains the Spanish word for hurricanes today. For us, the word later was modified further into “hurricane.”

Meanwhile, in 19th-century India, English merchant captain Henry Piddington had settled near Calcutta to become curator of a geologial museum and work on other scientific questions. One favorite activity was studying tropical storms, which led in 1844 to his landmark book, “The Horn-Book for the Law of Storms for the Indian and China Seas.” In it, he coined the word “cyclone,” derived from the Greek “kyklon,” meaning “moving in a circle, whirling around.” Some say it may even derive from “coil of a snake” to describe the storm’s shape and action.

Since “typhoon” is used in Asia, you’d probably guess it had an Eastern origin — and you’d be right. Some point to the Persian/Arabic/Hindi word “tufan” meaning “storm” or “to turn around.” Others point to the Chinese “tai fung,” basically meaning “big wind.” Either way, they apparently led to the early English words “touffon” (from the Persian) and “tuffoon” or “tay-fun” (from the Chinese), which ultimately led to “typhoon.”

How about a few more pieces of trivia before we leave the topic?

Cyclones spin counterclockwise in the Northern Hemisphere and clockwise in the Southern because of the Coriolis effect named for French mathematician/engineer Gaspard-Gustave de Coriolis. In simplified terms, it says that because of the effect of the Earth’s rotation on the atmosphere, ocean currents in the Northern Hemisphere are deflected to the right while those in the Southern Hemisphere are shifted to the left.

As a sidenote, the storm we fear most in the Midwest — the tornado — is apparently a mashup of the Spanish “tronado” (thunderstorm) and “tornar” (to turn).

And after all that, we probably all could use a drink, so let me recommend the hurricane, reportedly first whipped up by tavern owner Pat O’Brien in New Orleans. The popular story is that the bar started as a speakeasy during Prohibition and you needed to say the password “storm’s brewin’” to be admitted. Then, in the 1940s while he was trying to get rid of some of the less-popular rum, O’Brien started to mix rum, fruit juice and grenadine together. He served the concoction in glasses shaped like hurricane lamps and a tradition was born.


Today’s trivia

When and where may have been the first recorded use of “location, location, location” to tout properties in real estate?

Answer to Wednesday’s trivia: Only diehard “M*A*S*H” TV fans may remember a spinoff program called “W*A*L*T*E*R.” Starring Gary Burghoff reprising his Corp. Walter “Radar” O’Reilly character, it was designed to follow his exploits after he returned from Korea and became a police officer in St. Louis. It didn’t exactly turn into a “Trapper John, M.D.” CBS showed the program only once on July 17, 1984 — and only in the Eastern and Central time zones, because it was preempted by the Democratic National Convention in the West.

Roger Schlueter: 618-239-2465, @RogerAnswer