I’m most used to seeing this word occasionally in news reports of earthquakes. In places like Canada, where it’s not the everyday word, we can chalk its use up to the desire not to use the same word over and over again (this can become a sort of mania among some reporters, leading them to exhaust the thesaurus on occasion, perhaps even to the point of writing things like “He won a cucumber-eating contest, munching back two dozen of the indehiscent pepos”). However, in my younger years, following the principle that if you use a new word it must be to give some new shade of meaning, I concluded that it must refer to a specific instance of quaking, rather than the whole pattern of shakes and aftershocks that can characterize an earthquake.
Ah, well, no, it’s just a southern US word for “earthquake”. And it does have a nice feel to it, doesn’t it? The building starts a-tremblin’ and your books start a-tumblin’… It resembles tremble closely enough (perhaps as though an earthquake had disrupted the word) that one might conclude that it is a higher-class version of the same, sort of like divers for diverse. It has more of a tam-tam or kettle-drum sound, with the tem, rather than the rolling in of trem; then it rolls off afterward, like the echo of thunder or like smaller aftershocks. The mbl has a certain phonaesthetic effect, showing up in tremble and rumble and crumble and tumble and stumble and shambles – like rocks falling down a cliff.
So where does this word come from? A process similar to the one that gave us bust from burst? Actually, it probably comes from a merger of two words. But that merger is of two Latin words into a Spanish word: the verbs timere “fear” and tremulare “quake” (or “tremble”) into the Spanish verb temblar. And the noun form of that verb in Spanish is temblor, with the stress on the second syllable. It means shaking, for instance of the knees.
It happens that temblor is not the most direct translation of earthquake into Spanish; that would be terremoto. Temblor is used in Spanish first of all to refer to trembling of the body and such things. But of course it can be applied to the earth as well. It is thus a sort of Spanish periphrasis – a new word for the same thing so you don’t have to use the same old word all the time. Indeed, English-language journalists are not the only ones who like to shake things up a bit.
And, to give us another word for “earthquake” to add to our collection, we borrowed it into English in that sense. Now, nouns of state with the suffix or are not new to English; we have such as pudor and furor. And, like those ones, this one gets the stress on the first syllable in English. But no one in English uses temblor to mean “shakiness” or “trembling”; it’s just used for the big ground rumbler (or even just a little shake of a quake – but you will find people will use it more readily with something considerable).