How Tsunami Became an English Word After National Geographic Reported 1896 Disaster

On the evening of June 15, 1896, the northeast coast of Hondo, the main island of Japan, was struck by a great earthquake wave (tsunami), which was more destructive of life and property than any earthquake convulsion of this century in that empire.

Thus began an article in the September 1896 issue of National Geographic Magazine. It was a startling account 115 years ago by Eliza Ruhama Scidmore of a disaster that killed 26,975 people, and grievously wounded the 5,390 survivors.

National Public Radio reported today that this was the first use of the word tsunami in the English language.

“The word ‘tsunami’ is originally a Japanese word, but today it’s commonly used in English. And it’s been all over the news since a powerful earthquake sent a wall of water into northeastern Japan on March 11,” NPR said on air and on its website.


NPR reported today:

The first English use of the word happened more than 100 years ago, says linguist Ben Zimmer, of the Visual Thesaurus. That’s when an earthquake struck off the east coast of Japan, very close to where the recent tsunami hit.

“‘There was reporting in the National Geographic Magazine, and it said, ‘On the evening of June 15, 1896, the northeast coast of Hondo, the main island of Japan, was struck by a great earthquake wave,'” Zimmer says, “and then it explained that the Japanese term for this was ‘tsunami.'”

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

Read more on the NPR website about the origin and use of the word tsunami.

Scidmore’s article in National Geographic gave the world a gripping insight into the horror of the 1896 tsunami. A few survivors, who saw it advancing in the darkness, reported its height as 80 to 100 feet, she wrote.

“With a difference of but thirty minutes in time between the southern and northern points, it struck the San-Riku coast and in a trice obliterated towns and villages.”

In what today looks like an eery precursor of the 2011 tsunami in the same part of Japan, the 1896 wave “washed away and wrecked 9,313 houses, stranded some larger craft–steamers, schooners, and junks–and crushed or carried away 10,000 fishing boats…Thousands of acres of arable land were turned to wastes, projecting rocks offshore were broken, overturned, or moved hundreds of yards, shallows and bars were formed, and in some localities the entire shoreline was changed,” Scidmore reported.


A tsunami-tossed boat rests on top of a building amid a sea of debris in Otsuchi, Iwate Prefecture, on March 14, 2011. This is 1 of 20 unforgettable pictures of Japan’s 2011 tsunami aftermath chosen by National Geographic photo editors. See them all here.

Photograph by Yomiuri Shimbun, AFP/Getty Images

In 1896 National Geographic reported there were old traditions of earthquake waves on this coast of Japan, one of two centuries earlier doing some damage, and a tsunami of forty years earlier and a lesser one of 1892 flooding the streets and driving people to upper floors and roofs of their houses.

Only a few survivors saw the advancing wave in 1896, National Geographic reported, “one of them telling that the water first receded some 600 yards from ghastly white sands and then the Wave stood like a black wall 80 feet in height, with phosphorescent lights gleaming along its crest. Others, hearing a dustant roar, saw a dark shadow seaward and ran to high ground, crying ‘Tsunami! tsunami!‘ Some who ran to the upper stories of their houses for safety were drowned, crushed, or imprisoned there, only a few breaking through the roofs or escaping after the water subsided.”

12418031_10153900711084116_8462971761216697621_nDavid Braun is director of outreach with the digital and social media team illuminating the National Geographic Society’s explorer, science, and education programs.

He edits National Geographic Voices, hosting a global discussion on issues resonating with the Society’s mission and major initiatives. Contributors include grantees and Society partners, as well as universities, foundations, interest groups, and individuals dedicated to a sustainable world. More than 50,000 readers have participated in 10,000 conversations.

Braun also directs the Society side of the Fulbright-National Geographic Digital Storytelling Fellowship

Follow David on Facebook  Twitter  LinkedIn

Changing Planet

Meet the Author
More than forty years in U.S., UK, and South African media gives David Max Braun global perspective and experience across multiple storytelling platforms. His coverage of science, nature, politics, and technology has been published/broadcast by the BBC, CNN, NPR, AP, UPI, National Geographic, TechWeb, De Telegraaf, Travel World, and Argus South African Newspapers. He has published two books and won several journalism awards. In his 22-year career at National Geographic he was VP and editor in chief of National Geographic Digital Media, and the founding editor of the National Geographic Society blog, hosting a global discussion on issues resonating with the Society's mission and initiatives. He also directed the Society side of the Fulbright-National Geographic Digital Storytelling Fellowship, awarded to Americans seeking the opportunity to spend nine months abroad, engaging local communities and sharing stories from the field with a global audience. A regular expert on National Geographic Expeditions, David also lectures on storytelling for impact. He has 120,000 followers on social media: Facebook  Twitter  LinkedIn