Defining tsunamis: Yoda strikes back?

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Earth-Science Reviews


© 2016 Elsevier B.V. Charting the journey of the term "tsunami" through to its nearly ubiquitous global use today is not simply a case of determining when it was borrowed from Japanese. It represents an almost 1400 year journey from the earliest historical Japanese reference to waves generated by the AD684 Hakuho-Nankai earthquake to a 95.7% usage by international media to describe the 2010 Chilean tsunami. The gradual rise of the term's usage parallels changes in Japanese society from an educated elite in Kyoto writing down oral event descriptions from various prefectures, to the spread of newspapers, an increasing Western influence and a preference within the education system.The widespread use of the term tsunami throughout Japan was not truly achieved until the same decade that it was adopted by Western scientists to describe the 1946 Alaskan tsunami in Hawaii. The alternative term kaishou most likely became less popular simply because it was more difficult to understand in Japanese. While there has been a rapid uptake in Western science, and ultimately its wider adoption, this has been aided greatly by two major events to affect the Hawaiian Islands in 1946 (Alaskan) and 1960 (Chilean). During this time the meaning of the term has also changed with semantic narrowing focusing in on the definition we know today. Along the way there have been casualties, with terms such as kaishou now rarely, if ever, appearing. Other terms, which speak volumes about not only the richness of the Japanese language, but also of Japanese experience with tsunamis in the past, now offer us the opportunity to use appropriate qualifying terms to describe the nature of an event. A souteigai-tsunami is an unexpectedly large event whereas a yoda is a small one.

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