Daily Archives: September 2, 2010

hurricane

Hurricane season is coming around again: that time of horrible, furious winds in typically torrid areas – the Caribbean version of a typhoon, a large cyclone. The word brings to mind ready images: canes, trees, cars, houses, all blown sideways; storm surges flooding inland areas and bursting levees; houses boarded up, and harried residents hurrying with hurricane lamps to hide under cover.

Indeed, the word sets the tone: not a high-pitch thing like typhoon but a low roar, hurr, with echoes of hurry and horrible and hurtle, followed by the sting of cane – something that can as readily beat as support, and of course a splinterable kind of wood often used in the West Indies. (But that /keIn/ cane is a North American thing – the British reduce the last syllable so that the last two syllables of hurricane are the same as those of American. Go figure.)

But it also gets its taste from other uses. In New Orleans, it’s a famous cocktail (originally served in hurricane lamps but now served in plastic take-out cups) originally concocted as a way of getting rid of lots of cheap rum that tavern owner Pat O’Brien was forced to buy before he could get to order in the whiskey he wanted. It has surely been the cause of many roaring headaches on mornings after. In World War II, the Hawker Hurricane was a very important fighter jet plane. Rubin “Hurricane” Carter was a boxer wrongfully convicted of murder whose case was featured in a movie starring Denzel Washington (Carter now lives in Toronto). And there are many works of artistic output with hurricane in their names – I’m listing to one of them right now: “Hurricane,” a song by Grace Jones on the CD of the same name (which I bought in Berlin last year, unable to find it in Toronto).

Ah, Hurricane Grace – surely Jones has been called that on occasion (in the song she self-identifies as one). And the collocation is natural, given that hurricanes are named – formerly only after women, but now alternating, so that we have had Hurricane Andrew as well as Hurricane Katrina, and the one that the Atlantic provinces are currently bracing for is Hurricane Earl. There was a real Hurricane Grace, too, in 1991. It covered a fairly small track near Bermuda, only made it to category 2 status, and subsided into tropical storm status – but then it was subsumed into a larger low-pressure system that moved up the coast and became the original “perfect storm,” as described in the book and film The Perfect Storm. (And what was the name of the ship that was the focus of that story? The Andrea Gail – which invites unpleasant puns.)

And where did hurricane come from? Well, where hurricanes come from. The original word was (depending on your source) Taíno or Carib – the two peoples who were original inhabitants of the Antilles. The word was huracan; it was taken by Spanish as huracán and by Portuguese as furacão, there being some cross-traffic between /h/ and /f/ in those languages at that time (witness such alternations as Fernando/Hernando). The word went through a variety of forms in English borrowings starting in the 1500s before finally settling on a form that appears to have been based on the Spanish plural, huracanes, with of course some English-style modification to the spelling. Hurricane was the more or less settled form by 1700.

Ah, and now my Grace Jones CD has finished playing; I am dis-Graced, in a calm like the eye of a hurricane. No more ripping up trees… time to wind down upwind. For those on the coast, a different story still awaits, however…