The Secret Lives of Words: Hurricanes, tropical storms, and the lords of wind and sea

Rick LaFleur, Special to Weekly Citizen / The Chief

The Atlantic hurricane season officially runs June 1-Nov. 30, but the gods of wind and sea gave us Alberto in May 2018 and got off to an even earlier start in 2016. When Alex hit Category 1 strength near the Azores in the north Atlantic on Jan. 14, it became only the third January hurricane since record keeping began in the 19th century. The first, which also formed near the Azores in early January 1938, 15 years before the National Weather Service started giving storms women's names, was labeled simply "Hurricane One." The second, which moved southeastward into the Caribbean in late December 1954, and dissipated Jan. 6, 1955, was called "Alice" (with apologies to my wife, though she is herself indeed a force of nature) and is the only named Atlantic hurricane ever to span two calendar years.

Following Alex, 2016's second named cyclone (so called from Greekcyclos/circle as in CYCLe and biCYCLe, for the characteristic circular spinning of these systems) was Tropical Storm Bonnie. Originating northeast of the Bahamas, Bonnie intensified to Tropical Storm status on May 27, weakened to a depression before making landfall near Charleston, South Carolina, then alternately gained and lost strength before finally dissipating on June 5.

About a week after Bonnie, Tropical Storm Colin (the National Hurricane Center began alternating men's names with women's for identifying storms in 1978) coursed northward from the Caribbean into the Gulf of Mexico and made landfall on Florida's Big Bend during the early hours of June 7. While the storm's winds peaked near 50 mph, Apalachicola (where we own a tiny cottage) felt gusts of only about 15 mph and got just over an inch of much needed rain. Nevertheless Colin was the earliest third named storm on record and, though forecasters predicted only an average hurricane season, the year's jump-start had lots of folks concerned.

Weather woes and worries were common in antiquity as well, of course, and the Mediterranean Sea (Romans at the height of their empire called it "our sea,"mare nostrum, as in MARine and MARitime) had its share of storms then as now. Ancient MARiners much preferred hugging the coastline to sailing out over the high seas, whose perils we are reminded of today in the all too frequent news reports of refugees fleeing from desperate circumstances in their homelands around the Mediterranean only to be lost at sea due to the treacherous waters and the far more treacherous, heartless profiteering of migrant smugglers.

Classical Latin, the language of ancient Rome, had several terms for storms. A gale or squall was aprocella, which literally meant "hurling forward," something a sudden gust of wind might do to objects in its path. A more violent, swirling kind of windstorm, like a hurricane or a tornado, was aturbo, literally a "spinning object" or "whirlwind." The word gives English TURBulent seas, the TURBo under the hood of your sports car, wind TURBines, and the TURBid waters of our Apalachicola River when stirred up by torrential rains upstream. From the same root we have such metaphorically "stormy" derivatives as disTURB, "to whirl into different directions" (like DISperse) and perTURB, "to spin (one's mind) into confusion."

A "tempest" in English is a violent windstorm, and a "tempest in a teapot" is a tumultuous commotion over some trivial matter. Latintempestas is the source: its root meaning is "time" (as in TEMPo, TEMPorary, and conTEMPoraneous) and it's related totempus, as intempus fugit, "time flies," like a FUGITive (bad joke coming: time flies like an arrow, fruit flies like ... a banana, or sometimes a peach). But more generallytempestas meant "season" and hence "weather" and then specifically "stormy weather."

Avoiding bad weather, like so much else in Rome, meant appealing to the gods--and why not, as the ancients had hundreds of them. If you wanted rain, or had too much of it, pray to JupiterPluvius, god of rain;aqua pluvia was "rainwater" and thecompluvium was the opening in the roof of a Roman house used for letting smoke out and rain in (for collection in a cistern called animpluvium). Jupiter himself was the Roman version of the Indo-European sky-god. In origin the name, Ju-piter =deus-pater =dies-pater, like GreekZeus pater and Sanskritdyaus pitar, meant "god-father/day-father," the sky-lord who ushers in the dawn and dispels the horrors of night and darkness. Afraid of lightning? -- pray to JupiterTonans, god of thunder ("inTONe," to recite or chant musically, originally meant "to thunder, or to utter in thunderous tones").

Ocean winds were under the dominion of Aeolus, who confined them like wild horses roaring in their stalls in his vast palatial cavern beneath the sea. A prayer to him, and an offering (read "bribe"), could save you from deadly windstorms. Conversely, Juno might tempt him with a lovely nymph, as she does in Virgil's epic poem theAeneid, into unleashing his horse-winds to overwhelm the fleet Aeneas had led from Troy, a city the goddess had long despised.

Jupiter's brother Neptune (an Italic god of springs ultimately identified with the Greek sea-divinity Poseidon) could avert a hurricane, or calm one at least. He did so in thatAeneid episode, gravely perTURBed by Aeolus' meddling in his briny domain. Next time a storm threatens, just pray that Neptune speaks, as he did then to those raging winds, and that, "faster than his words, he calms the swollen seas, routs the gathered clouds, and leads back the sun."

**Rick LaFleur is retired from 40 years of teaching Latin language and literature at the University of Georgia, which during his tenure came to have the largest Latin enrollment of all of the nation's colleges and universities; his latest book is "Ubi Fera Sunt," a lively, lovingly wrought translation into classical Latin of Maurice Sendak's classic, "Where the Wild Things Are," ranked first on TIME magazine's 2015 list of the top 100 children's books of all time.