The State of Aloha

The word hurricane seems to stick out as one of the more exotic words in the English language. And for good reason.

Ancient Mayan peoples who lived in what is now southern Mexico, Guatemala, Belize, El Salvador and Honduras worshiped a creator god named Hurakan. This god blew across primordial waters and created dry land. The same Hurakan is also a destroyer who brought a great flood and storm that killed an entire race of people made of wood.

Islanders to the east of the Mayans, the Carib and Arawak people, had a god of their own. Huracan was a frightening deity that controlled great storms. Although the Taino people, the indigenous islanders in Puerto Rico, Hispaniola, Jamaica and Cuba, distinguished the storm, which they named the hurican — with its spiraling winds — from the deity Guabancex, an angry spirit who brought the storm.

Iberian explorers were the first Europeans to learn about these spirits and the powerful forces of nature. A Spanish missionary living among the Taino on Hispaniola in the 1490s recorded that “when Guabancex becomes angry, she makes the winds and waters move and casts houses to the ground and uproots the trees.”

She is represented with a ferocious face within the eye of the storm. Her arms are twisted and violently moving all around her — not unlike the symbol adopted for a hurricane by our National Weather Service.

It didn’t take long for the Spanish and Portuguese to colonize the lands and subject the people they encountered to a cruelty and destruction rivaling any tropical cyclone. (The Taino people, who feared Guabancex and her storms, were wiped out entirely by the Spanish invaders.)

They appropriated the names used by the tribes. By the mid-16th century, the Spanish had adopted the word juracan to describe the ferocious storms that would ravage the Caribbean Sea and the Gulf of Mexico. The Portuguese did the same and introduced the word furacao to the lexicon.

It didn’t take long after that for English sailors to adopt the word from the Spanish. The Oxford English Dictionary — the famed last word on words — notes up to 39 different spellings of the word ranging from forcane, herrycano, and my personal favorite, harrycain.

Even the great William Shakespeare got into the act. King Lear himself commands the winds to blow “and crack your cheeks! Rage! Blow! You cataracts and hurricanoes, spout/Till you have drench’d our steeples, drown’d the cocks!”

The Bard uses the word again in the tragedy “Troilus and Cressida,” where he describes “the dreadful spout/Which shipmen do the hurricano call.” That spelling was in first decade of the 17th century. It took another 80 years for the modern spelling to come about and settled the matter in English (at least for now).

Here at home, the Hawaiian religion attributes the great god Lono to thunderstorms and there are different deities that often appear in the form of thunderstorms and rain, but there is little evidence of a single god or spirit that unleashes massive and destructive storms like Huracan and Guabancex.

The Hawaiian language also does not have a distinct and single word for a hurricane. Mary Kawena Pukui and Samuel Elbert — authoritative scholars on the Hawaiian language — use the phrase “makani pahili” (strong winds) as the best equivalent.

Nowadays the word is used to describe a very specific weather phenomenon. Technically speaking, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has defined a “hurricane” as a tropical cyclone — a rotating low-pressure system with no fronts — with sustaining winds of at least 74 miles per hour. (Anything below that is a tropical storm and below that a tropical depression.) That is why some meteorologists in 2013 changed the name from Hurricane Sandy to “Superstorm Sandy” once it traveled away from warm, tropical waters to destroy parts of the East Coast and flood the New York City subway system.

Then there’s the nonsensical geographic divisions. To be a hurricane, the tropical cyclone with requisite wind speeds must originate in the Atlantic basin or the northeastern Pacific Ocean — such as tropical Mexico or in the central Pacific near the Hawaiian Islands. Those cyclones developing in the northwestern Pacific like Guam or parts of the Philippines are called typhoons. (To make matters even more confusing, the word typhoon is Greek in origin even though the storm originates thousands of miles from the Mediterranean.). If they originate elsewhere, such as the Indian Ocean or the far south near Australia, they don’t have a special name. They’re just tropical cyclones.

But no matter what you call them or where they come from, these terrible storms have been part of human history. From time immemorial everyone — from the ancient indigenous mariner to the modern-day meteorologist — is relieved to see them leave us behind.

* Ben Lowenthal is a trial and appellate lawyer, currently with the Office of the Public Defender, who grew up on Maui. His email is 808stateofaloha@gmail.com. “The State of Aloha” alternates Fridays with Sarah Ruppenthal’s “Neighbors.”