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'Derecho' as a Weather Term in English

'Tornado' and 'Hurricane' Also Have Spanish Origins


Because I don't live in a part of the country where they're common, it is only recently that I've become familiar with the English word "derecho" used as the name for a type of storm, one in which damage can be caused by high winds traveling in a straight line rather than in a circular motion as in a tornado.

It should be obvious to Spanish students that "derecho" is a loanword from the Spanish derecho. Depending on the context and the part of speech it is functioning as, derecho can mean "straight ahead" or "right" (as in opposite of "left").

"Derecho" is one of those rare loanwords where we know who first used the word in a modern context. According to a paper published by the U.S. National Weather Service, "derecho" was first used by physics professor Gustavus Hinrichs, who studied weather in the late 19th century and noticed that many destructive storms were not in fact tornadoes, but storms whose wind was traveling in a straight line. Hinrichs first used the term "derecho" in print in 1888, choosing a Spanish word for "straight ahead" as being analogous to the word "tornado," also of Spanish origin. It wasn't until nearly a century later, however, that the Weather Service began regularly using the term.

Interestingly, though, tornado as a Spanish word in that form comes from English! The English term "tornado" is actually a corrupted form of the Spanish word tronada, the word for thunderstorm, with influence from the Spanish verb tornar, to turn. Precisely how the word "tornado" developed is lost to history, although it most likely came from Caribbean Spanish, which gave us the word "hurricane." Later, after "tornado" was used in English, tornado was adopted into Spanish to refer to a particular type of windstorm.

Here's a related etymological tidbit: Just as the Spanish derecho can mean "right" or "straight," the English word "right" at times in the past was synonymous with "straight" in some contexts. (Before "straight" gained a sexual meaning, we might have said that someone who does right is living a straight life, for example.) That's because "right" came from a Proto-Indo-European root, reg-, which meant, among other things, to move straight ahead. Also coming from the same Indo-European root word is, you guessed it, derecho. Among the words tied to that ancient root are "direct," "correct" and "regal" in English, as well as directo (direct), dirigir (to direct), correcto (correct), corregir (to correct) and rey (king) in Spanish.

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