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This blog is about the fascinating, fun, and challenging things about the English language. I hope to entertain you and to help you with problems or just questions you might have with spelling and usage. I go beyond just stating what is right and what is wrong, and provide some history or some tips to help you remember. Is something puzzling you? Feel free to email me at wordlady.barber@gmail.com.
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Saturday, August 20, 2011

Typhoon

Typhoons (and super-typhoons) have been wreaking havoc recently in Japan, Korea, and The Philippines. A typhoon and a hurricane are technically the same meteorological phenomenon, just occurring in different parts of the world. The word "typhoon" is exceedingly cross-cultural. When English-speakers first encountered these storms in India in the 1500s, they naturally borrowed the Urdu word for the phenomonon, tufan. For about 300 years, the British in India called them "touffans". Meanwhile, however, there was also a Chinese word for the same thing, tai fung (big wind). People who had more contact with China than with India tended to use this word or something like it instead of the Urdu word. As luck would have it, the ancient Greek word for "whirlwind" was tuphon. For several centuries from the Renaissance onward, there was a tendency to believe that all words came from Latin or Greek (even if designating a Pacific Ocean phenomenon!), so people messed around with these Urdu and Chinese words  to make them look more like the Greek word, until we finally ended up with "typhoon" in the mid-19th century.

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About Me

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Canada's Word Lady, Katherine Barber is an expert on the English language and a frequent guest on radio and television. She was Editor-in-Chief of the Canadian Oxford Dictionary. Her witty and informative talks on the stories behind our words are very popular. Contact her at wordlady.barber@gmail.com to book her for speaking engagements; she can tailor her talks to almost any subject. She is also available as an expert witness for lawsuits.