When news of the earthquake and flooding in Japan broke on 11 March 2011 nobody in Britain needed to be told what a tsunami was. The devastation one can cause had been burned into our minds since the Indian Ocean earthquake of Christmas 2004.
It was that catastrophe that brought the Japanese word into the British vocabulary. Before then, it had largely been restricted to oceanographers and seismologists and to a relatively small literate group that had come across it and been intrigued by it (including the Manic Street Preachers, with their song of that title in 1999). But then, we never get tsunamis in the UK and we had no great need of the word. Californians have had more direct experience both with the name and the phenomenon.
A result of its patchy circulation was that it had become a figurative term in literary writing before its literal sense had widely penetrated. In the 1970s, Science magazine declared the Food and Drug Administration was “swimming through a tsunami of comments” on its drug strategy. In 1978, the New Yorker described a “tsunami of applause”. In 2002, William Safire combined Japanese with Yiddish in the New York Times to generate a “tsunami of tsoris”, a sea of troubles.
Tsunami is made up from two Japanese words, tsu, harbour and nami, wave. Out at sea the energy of a tsunami is dispersed through a tall column of water and the wave may be small enough to be missed. As it approaches land the shoaling water slows the wave but increases its height until it powers ashore. Japanese fishermen at sea wouldn’t notice a tsunami passing them until they returned home and found their harbours destroyed by a wave that seemed to come from nowhere.
The word first entered English through reports of the Meiji-Sanriku earthquake and consequent tsunami in June 1896 which caused many thousands of deaths across the same region as the one of March 2011. But the term was used too rarely in reports to become widely known. Most people continued inaccurately to call such events tidal waves — tsunamis have no connection with tides — as they had since Charles Lyell called them that in his Principles of Geology in 1830.