Armenian Language Corner


Hurricane Henri passed through the Northeast, but did not become a hurricane. On the other hand, meteorologists, who always err on the side of caution, prevented us that there was the potential for tornados. How do we say “hurricane” and “tornado” in Armenian?

All sorts of natural and man-made catastrophes have ravaged Armenia during its history, but not hurricanes. Therefore, the word for hurricane did not enter Classical Armenian, and you will only find it in the nineteenth century, when Modern Armenian was starting to take its place. The word hurakán came from taino, a Caribbean language, where it was the name of the god of the storm, or that’s what the Spaniards understood (it appears to have been the word for storms itself), for they borrowed the word huracán, which William Shakespeare already used in the early seventeenth century as hurricano.

While the Armenian language tends to create its own words for new concepts rather than borrowing them from other languages, this was not the case for hurricane. The Spanish word huracán entered French as ouragan, and since French was the language of communication in the nineteenth century, it should not sound strange that Armenian borrowed the word from French as ուրական (օօragan), which is used until the present in both its direct and metaphoric senses.

What about tornados? Here the case is different. We have the word թաթառ (tatarr), with strong r (like Spanish carro), which should not be confused with թաթար (tatar), the name for Tatars/Tartars (the old name for Turkic names and for Azeris before 1918). The word tatarr means “screw-type gale,” which corresponds well to what we understand for tornado.

However, when we go to look for the origin of tatarr, we come across a very curious situation. The great linguist Hrachia Adjarian found a unique word թաթուռ (tatoorr), meaning “little palm (of the hand)” (from թաթ/tat “palm of the hand”), used once by an author of the twelfth century, Sargis, who wrote a commentary on the letter of James: “Here is a small cloud on the sea that takes water out of the sea with its tatoorr.” This word was twice printed in the eighteenth century, and the second edition, instead of tatoorr, had tatarr. The first dictionary of Classical Armenian, the Haigazian Dictionary, whose first volume was compiled by Mekhitar of Sepastia (1676-1749) and published in 1749, interpreted the word tatarr from that printed edition as “whirlwind of clouds that like an arm extending from the sky, takes water from the sea or the river like the palm of a hand.” The first volume of its successor, the New Haigazian Dictionary, published in 1836, validated this interpretation. And here is how a word that had a very dubious Classical Armenian pedigree entered Modern Armenian nevertheless and today has the meaning “tornado.”