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LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:

As we follow the aftermath of the tsunami in Japan, we're going to take a look at the history that word. Tsunami is originally a Japanese word, but it's been adopted all over the world.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Linguist Ben Zimmer of the Visual Thesaurus says the first English use happened over a hundred years ago, when an earthquake hit very close to where the current one did.

Mr. BEN ZIMMER (Executive Producer, VisualThesaurus.com): There was reporting in the National Geographic magazine, and it said: On the evening of June 15th, 1896, the northeast coast of Hondo, the main island of Japan, was struck by a great earthquake wave. And then it explained that the Japanese term for this was tsunami.

MONTAGNE: From that first mention, the term became more widespread, especially after the disaster that devastated Indonesia in 2004.

WERTHEIMER: Tsunami might have spread in use because the common synonym, tidal wave, is inaccurate. Waves from underwater earthquakes have nothing to do with tides. Then again, tsunami isn't technically accurate, either.

Professor ROBERT RAMSEY (Chairman, East Asian Languages and Cultures, University of Maryland): The normal etymology of that word is tsu-plus-nami, which is harbor-plus-wave. But, you know, these things don't just occur in harbors.

WERTHEIMER: That's Professor Robert Ramsey, who is chair of East Asian Languages and Cultures at the University of Maryland.

MONTAGNE: He points out that the words we borrow from Japanese are usually cultural ones, like futon or sushi.

Prof. RAMSEY: Or karaoke, which is karaoke, or manga or anime.

MONTAGNE: Tsunamis are more general. They can happen anywhere in the world. Still, it's fitting that the global word for this natural disaster is Japanese. Almost a third of all recorded large tsunamis happened in that country.

Professor SUSAN NAPIER (Japanese Studies, Tufts University): There is this very intense relationship that the Japanese have with the sea.

WERTHEIMER: That's Susan Napier, professor of Japanese Studies at Tufts University.

Prof. NAPIER: They're an island country. Fish is their main staple of their diet. All the great woodblock print artists have many, many pictures of the ocean.

MONTAGNE: Then there's the recent film "Ponyo," by the famous animator Hayao Miyazaki, which tells the story of the sea submerging an entire town.

And in literature...

Prof. NAPIER: Kenzaburo Oe, he wrote a book called "Kozui Wa Waga Tamashii Ni Oyobi," "The Flood Waters Have Come into My Soul." It's about a group of young anarchists, and they dream that the world will eventually be destroyed by nuclear energy, and then a wave will rise. It's a very prescient work.

MONTAGNE: Certainly, this disaster is very real, and we'll continue to follow relief efforts in Japan in the coming days.

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MONTAGNE: You're listening to MORNING EDITION, from NPR News.

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