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This Miami Life

Hurricane, I Mean Earthquake

Have you heard anyone slip up and say “the hurricane in Haiti,” when they meant to say “the earthquake”?  Hurricanes and earthquakes are both disasters, but could these words become interchangeable?

Dan Grech, Under the Sun co-host and senior producer, interviews Feryal Yavas, Director of Linguistics at Florida International University.  According to Yavas, our “frame of disaster” is the hurricane.  That’s because hurricanes are more frequent here and can have such dire consequences:  “Language is the representation of reality as we perceive it, so it’s very much connected to the outer world and whatever that reality is to the culture or society we’re in.”   Until January, when you thought about natural disasters in Haiti, you thought about hurricanes – not earthquakes.   The last major earthquake  in Haiti was back in 1887–123 years ago.

Yavas also discusses the possibility for “semantic widening.”   This happens when language changes over time, in circumstances such as this.  Perhaps over decades, the English word, “hurricane,” could eventually encompass any disaster.