Archives     Dictionary    HOME

January 2005 Archives

Tsunamis and related words: shallow-water wave; tsunami; ring of fire; bathemetric

From an old joke: mutable; beddable (bedabble);

Eponyms (non-character) from writings: Baedeker; Boswell; roorback; pasquinade; yapp binding; machiavellian; Knickerbocker

Etymologies in the Sky: moon; meteoroid; meteor; meteorite; cosmos (cosmology)



Tsunamis and related words

For obvious reasons, this week is devoted to words related to tsunamis. I have had to put some of this science together myself, trusting readers to provide any needed correction.

Before we can properly define 'tsunami', we must define a scientific concept.

shallow-water wave – a wave whose depth is a very small, in comparison to its wavelength

The concept is relevant because with a shallow-water wave, one can simplify the formula for determining how fast the wave moves. Basically, only one factor is relevant: wave speed is proportional to the square root of wave depth. The deeper the wave, the faster it moves.

Obviously, a shallow-water wave can be one of small depth, or one of great wavelength. This point will lead us to the definition of 'tsunami', tomorrow.


The dictionaries will tell you that a tsunami is a kind of 'tidal wave' or storm wave (Webster's, Hutchinson; Wordnet), or a 'large', 'great' or 'high' wave. (Webster's, OED; AHD). That is shameful. In fact a tsunami it has nothing to do with the tides or storms. And its strike is insidious precisely because, in the open ocean it is not 'large' at all; it can barely be noticed.

We said that a "shallow-water wave" is one whose depth is a very small, in comparison to its wavelength. That of course is achieved if a wave has very long wavelength. Such a wave is called a tsunami.

tsunami – a series of waves of extremely long wave length and long period (generated in a body of water by an impulsive disturbance that vertically displaces the water)¹

For two reasons, a tsunami will strike with little warning. First, it crosses deep ocean very quickly, roughly as fast as a jet plane, and with little energy loss. (Reason: with such great wavelength, even in deep ocean it still acts as a shallow-water wave.²) Second, a bit of reflection shows that a tsunami – however big it may be when it hits the land – is almost undetectably small while it is speeds across the ocean. As you've read, it takes special sensors to detect it there. Ships at sea will not even notice it, and hence provide no radio warnings, and we do not read of tsunami damage to ships at sea.

Indeed, invisibility-at-sea is the source of the name tsunami. Fisherman who had had a calm and peaceful voyage, with no extraordinary waves, would be baffled to return and find the port devastated. The disastrous wave, it would seem, was one that had struck only in the harbor. Hence it was a "harbor wave", which in Japanese is tsu-nami.

A tsunami becomes noticeable only when it slows, in shallow coastal waters. There its size depends on harbor configuration, and may not be particularly impressive. But the tsunami continues inexorably, and simply does not stop.


¹Source: US National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration, which appears they have taken the accepted scientific definition. A tsunami can have a wavelength in excess of 100 km – some sources say much more – and period of several minutes to an hour. Contrast typical wind-driven swells along a beach: wave length of 150 m and period of about 10 seconds.

²For such a wave, speed = √(g*depth), where g = acceleration of gravity, 9.8 m/sec/sec. Work it out and you'll find a tsunami travels through 5,000-meter ocean (which is not atypical) at almost 800 km/hr, or 500 mph.


We've seen that a tsunami is generated in a body of water by an impulse that vertically displaces the water. What could that impulse be? Destructive tsunamis are most commonly caused by undersea earthquakes (less commonly by submarine landslides, infrequently by submarine volcanic eruptions and very rarely by a large meteorite striking the ocean from above).

It follows that destructive tsunamis will most often occur in the most earthquake-prone area of the ocean. That area is the Pacific Ocean, in which about 90% of the world's earthquakes occur.¹ That Pacific area has been given a special name.

ring of fire – an extensive zone of volcanic and seismic activity that coincides roughly with the borders of the Pacific Ocean


¹The next most seismic region, 5-6% of earthquakes, is the Alpide belt, extending from Mediterranean region eastward through Turkey, Iran, and northern India. I assume that since it is not oceanic, earthquakes there would not generate tsunamis.


bathemetric – regarding measurement of the depths of an ocean or other body of water


[T]he Indian Ocean has none of the deep-sea tsunami detection equipment. Still, Titov said, a rapid forecast and alert system based just on the seismic and bathymetric (sea floor topography) data could have saved lives. There are six tsunameters deployed in the Pacific Ocean today, Bernard said, offering the "bare minimum" of an early warning system. "We probably need more like 20," he said.
– Tom Paulson, The Seattle Post-Intelligencer, Dec. 28, 2004, quoting cutting-edge experts at the NOAA's Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory in Seattle



From an old joke


Old joke: Three bachelors were kidding their married friend.


"You've been married five years now, George," said one, "and still no childeren? Is your wife" (and here he tried a very bad pun) "unbearable?"

Or," interjected another, "perhaps she's inconceivable?"

"Maybe she's, uh, impregnable," joked the third.

George shook his head sadly. "No, boys, you're all wrong. She's insurmountable and inscrutable."

A thorough logophile would have more puns here. Let us look at some words that would fit punningly, and look at their true meanings.


George shook his head sadly. "The woman never even stops talking. She's simply not mutable."

A pun, because in fact mutable is not a form of to mute, make silent.
mutable – prone to change; inconstant; also, capable of change or of being changed
[The antonym, immutable, is more frequently used.]


Jack and Emily were the monikers most frequently given to boys and girls in England and Wales last year. Jack has been tops for a decade, and favourite boys’ names only shuffle their order over time. But Emily has been No 1 for just two years, and girls’ names tend to be more mutable, changing with fashion.
– The Times, Jan. 5, 2005


George added, "She doesn't like bedabbling." George is punning on these two words:

bedabble - (trans. v, from 'dabble') to dabble upon; to sprinkle or wet
beddable - (informal, from 'bed') sexually attractive or available


His face was round, white, pockmarked and bedabbled with sweat like a Cheshire cheese. - Susanna Clarke, Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell: A Novel

I stared upon his blood-bedabbled breast
And sang my malediction with the rest.
– William Butler Yeats, A Woman Young and Old


He still runs away from danger when he can, still seduces, or is seduced by, every beddable woman, still lies, flatters, and cajoles without scruple.
– - Anthony Lejeune, book review in National Review, July 10, 1995

Adrienne Shelley, star of Sudden Manhattan, says: "I got a call in my car on my way to an audition from my agent. He said, 'The important thing is that they think you are beddable."



Eponyms (non-character) from writings


Many eponyms are the names of characters in literature, including mythology and the bible. We can speak of a Hercules or a hermaphrodite, a Judas or a Jonah, a milquetoast or a munchkin.

From the world of writings we also have occasional eponyms that are not merely character names. Obviously, an author's name can used to mean "written by or in the style of": a Shakespearean sonnet. A few of these non-character eponyms have a larger sense. This week we'll look at some of them, familiar and unfamiliar.

Baedeker – a guidebook to countries or a country; more generally, a guidebook to places
[after Karl Baedeker, 1801-1859, who published a series of travel guidebooks]


Without some yet-to-be-written Baedeker, the casual visitor to Santa Fe in the '90s would scarcely detect the activities and events which signal a major change in the city's legendary but willfully old-line art world.
– Jan Ernst Adlmann, Art in America, Jan. 1995

Why traipse all over town searching for the perfect cut, wax, or brow tweese when Benton Jordan, the brains behind the new beauty Baedeker head to toe, has done the work for you? ... she has collected the low-down on 350 local salons and spas in a comely aqua Zagat-sized paperback.
– Audrey Davidow, Los Angeles Magazine, August 2001


Boswell – an assiduous and devoted recorder of another's life, words and deeds.
[after James Boswell (1740-1795), renowned as biographer of Samuel Johnson]


The black-capped chickadee is a half-ounce bundle of feathers, unbridled energy and--as scientists are discovering--amazing avian brainpower. And Susan Smith, no weirder than most bird students, is its Boswell. Her 1991 book is a notably readable summary of everything then known about the species.
– Les Line, Total recall - chickadee behavior, National Wildlife, Feb. 1, 1998

Chief Seattle's ecosermon in 1854, extolling the virtues of living in harmony with nature, has become part of environmental lore. The speech is quoted everywhere.

Except for one niggling detail: It's all bogus. Henry Smith, the frontier doctor who became Chief Seattle's self-appointed Boswell, however, didn't actually publish a translation of the Chief's speech until 1887--more than 30 years later
– Linda Marsa, Talk is Chief, Omni, Dec. 1992


In 2002 the Supreme Court of India (at §12) quoted in full this bogus Chief Seattle speech, with high praise, stating, "The reply is profound. It is beautiful. It is timeless. It contains the wisdom of the ages. It is the first ever and the most understanding statement on environment. The whole of it is worth quoting as any extract from it is to destroy its beauty."


During James Polk's 1844 campaign for US president, the Ithaca Chronicle, in upstate New York, published blockbuster excerpts from Roorback's Tour through the Western and Southern States in 1836. Baron Von Roorback had told of meeting a group of slave traders, noting, "Forty of these unfortunate beings had been purchased, I was informed, of the Hon. J. K. Polk, the present speaker of the house of representatives; the mark of the branding iron, with the initials of his name on their shoulders distinguishing them from the rest."

The Chronicle had made a total fabrication. No such Baron existed; no such book existed; the extract was lifted from a recent travel-book by George W. Featherstonhaugh, and altered by inserting Polk's name and shifting the locale to near Polk's home. So today's eponym, the name of an author, is uniquely that of an author who never existed.

roorback (or roorbach) – a defamatory lie, put out to smear a politician


Nor is the typical American journalist's credulity confined to such canards and roorbacks from far places. He is often victimized just as easily at home.
– H.L. Mencken, Journalism in America


A longer Mencken extract (ellipses omitted), leading up to his above sentence, will certainly be amusing, and it may be timely. For Dan Rather of CBS News, following controversy over a false news story he aired, has recently announced that he will be taking early retirement

For example, the problem of false news. How does so much of it get into the American newspapers, even the good ones? [The checkers], facing the elemental professional problem of distinguishing between true news and false, turned out to be incompetent. Obviously, the way to diminish such failures in future is not to adopt sonorous platitudes borrowed from the realtors, the morticians, the sanitary plumbers and the Kiwanis, but to undertake an overhauling of the faulty technic, and of the incompetent personnel responsible for it. I don't think it will make demands that are impossible. The bootlegging, legal or delicatessen professions, confronted by like demands, would quickly furnish the talent necessary to meet them; I see no reason why the profession of journalism should not measure up as well.

When the means are readily at hand, [the news editor] often attempts to check it, and sometimes even rejects it. But when such checking presents difficulties – in other words, when deceit is especially easy, and hence should be guarded against most vigilantly – he succumbs nine times out of ten, and without a struggle. It was precisely by this process that the editors of the Times made that paper ridiculous. In the face of great improbabilities, they interpreted their inability to dispose of them as a license to accept them as truth. Journalism will be a sounder and more dignified profession when a directly contrary interpretation of the journalist's duty prevails. There will then be less news in the papers, but it will at least have the merit of being true.


pasquinade – a satire or lampoon, esp. one ridiculing a specific person. verb: to ridicule with a pasquinade (pasquin; pasquil – rarer terms; same meanings; can also mean 'one who lampoons')

In 1501, an ancient statute was unearthed and set up in a public square in Rome. Folks took to posting lampoons and satirical verses on the statue, which they nicknamed "Pasquino" after some sharp-tongued curmudgeon. (Sources differ as to whether he was an ancient or a contemporary, a schoolmaster, a tailor or a cobbler.) Soon the term pasquinata came to mean such a lampoon, and an English form became current when Thomas Nash, in 1589, began using the pseudonym of 'Pasquil of England'.

To give you the full flavor, I must quote a pasquinade at length.


When Michaelis's testimony at the inquest brought to light Wilson's suspicions of his wife I thought the whole tale would shortly be served up in racy pasquinade ...

– F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby

[During the hullabaloo when P.T. Barnum brought Jumbo the Elephant to America,] the New York Times claimed Queen Victoria "would often romp with him by the hour, making him fetch and carry like a dog and rolling with him in innocent delight upon the turf. Later in life, when the danger that her Majesty might by accident roll upon Jumbo and seriously injure him became too obvious to be disregarded, the Queen ceased to romp with him, though she still kept up the custom of having him sit by her side at the tea-table and 'beg' for a lump of sugar like a trained poodle." All this was kept secret from the Liberals, of course, until the unfortunate day when Jumbo got tangled in a palace clothesline and became [dangerously] excited, thereby necessitating the intervention of the police. Barnum immediately composed a reply to this pasquinade, in which he generously offered to "assuage the royal grief and stop the flow of royal tears" by returning to England with Jumbo the following October.

– A. H. Saxon, P.T. Barnum


yapp binding – a style of leather bookbinding, with soft limp edges that overlap and thus protect the exposed edges of the pages.
Illustrated here. Use is almost completely confined to religious books.
[After William Yapp, bookseller in the latter part of the 19th century, who designed the style for pocket-bibles.]

machiavellian – cunning, scheming, and unscrupulous
[Nicolo Machiavelli (1469-1527), It. statesman who, in The Prince (written ~1513, publ. 1532) advises that unethical methods may be needed to get and use political power]


There are of course machiavellian manipulators everywhere who seek only to place themselves first.
Lloyd Best, Trinidad and Tobago Express, Jan. 15, 2005


Knickerbocker – a New Yorker descended from the early Dutch settlers; or, more broadly, a New Yorker

In 1809 an ad in the New York Post sought the whereabouts of one Deitrich Knickerbocker, an elderly gentleman "not in his right mind." A later announcement told that, the man not being found, his creditors would publish an odd manuscript of his to satisfy his debts. Soon, there appeared Knickerbocker's History of New York.

It was a literary hoax. There was no such gentleman. The actual author was a young and then-unknown fellow, Washington Irving. The work, hilariously satirical, was a great success, and its exact title will give you a taste:


A History of New York, from the Beginning of the World to the End of the Dutch Dynasty. [subtitle:] Among many Surprising and Curious Matters, the Unutterable Ponderings of Walter the Doubter, the Disastrous Projects of William the Testy, and the Chivalric Achievements of Peter the Headstrong, the three Dutch Governors of New Amsterdam; being the only Authentic History of the Times that ever hath been, or ever will be Published.


So extravagant an origin calls for an extravagant illustration.


Suzanne couldn't help herself. After all, he was only a laborer, and an Irish one at that. His long dark lashes lowered, and when he looked up from under them, his gaze was potently seductive. "Are you going to meet me, Miss Vanderkemp?" Suzanne did not have to think about it. Soon she would marry some pale, boring Knickerbocker, or maybe some moneyed newcomer. It wouldn't be horrid, but it would hardly be exciting. She wanted Jake O'Neil.
– Brenda Joyce, After Innocence (excerpted)



Etymologies in the Sky


This week we'll present the interesting etymologies of some familiar words from astronomy. My grateful acknowledgement to AR Tullock, whose article in The Scotsman provided the idea of this theme and much of the information, to which I have added.

moon – from an Indo-European root meaning 'to measure"; a month is measured by the phases of the moon

If I understand correctly, in many of the Indo-European languages the words for "moon" and "month" are identical or are cognates: German, Sanskrit, Irish, Lithuanian, Avestan, Persian, Old Irish, Welsh. In other languages (Greek, Armenian) they were originally cognates, until another term was substituted for "moon".


It would seem obvious that the words meteor and meteorology must be related, and yet they have entirely different meanings: meteorology is the study of weather and other aspects of the atmosphere, not the study of meteors. What then is the connection between the two words?

We understand that lightning, streaking across the night sky, is a phenomenon of the atmosphere. The ancients, seeing the differently-shaped steak of light which we today call a meteor or shooting star, had no reason to think it too was anything other than atmospheric. The English word meteor meant 'an atmospheric phenomena of any type'.¹ Only in the 1800s did it become generally understood that the streak of a shooting star was something fundamentally different. With that, the word meteor became confined to a shooting star, and new forms of the word emerged:


�.       meteoroid² – a stone in interplanetary space, too small to be an asteroid

�.       meteor – the streak of light as that stone passes through the earth's atmosphere; also, the stone itself during that passage

�.       meteorite – the same stone, resting on or in the earth


How did meteor come to mean 'an atmospheric phenomenon' in the first place? It began with Greek aeirein 'to raise' and aoros 'lifted' (kin to the terms that gave us aorta 'that which is hung', air, and malaria 'bad air'). The Greeks added the prefix meta- 'over; beyond' to form meteoros, referring to a ship raised on the crest of a wave, but later taking this word to mean 'suspended up in the air'.¹ Hence meteorology, the study of atmospheric phenomena.

The verb form of the same word (meteôrizô 'to raise in the air') came to be used figuratively for 'to raise hope' (Thucydides) or 'to inflate with pride' (Aristophanes, The Birds). In the Bible the word is used precisely once and with an unclear meaning, something like 'to be kept in suspense'. (Luke xii. 29)


¹One spoke of four types of meteors: aqueous meteors (rain, snow, hail); aerial meteors (wind); luminous meteors (aurora, rainbow); and igneous or fiery meteors (lightning; shooting star)
²Coined 1865 by Hubert Anson Newton of Yale: "The term meteoroid will be used to designate such a body before it enters the earth’s atmosphere." Amer. J. of Science (apparently at 39:198, but possibly at 37:377-389 or 38:53-61). AHD calls him 'Huburt', but is mistaken.

Disclaimer: I rely on secondary sources; certain details conflict or appear in only one source. I have not been able to trace original texts, nor do I speak Greek.


cosmos – the universe, the world, seen as a well-ordered whole
cosmology – a account (whether scientific, philosophic or mythic) of the creation of the universe
The root is Greek kosmos "orderly arrangement". in Homer, kosmeo is the act of marshaling troops.

The same sense of kosmos gives us microcosm, macrocosm, cosmopolitan, and obviously cosmonaut. Less obviously, it is the base of cosmetic: Greek kosmetikos "skilled in adornment," > kosmein "to arrange, adorn," > kosmos "order."