The Word

The real tsunami

The Japanese disaster silenced two metaphors at once

By Erin McKean
April 3, 2011

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It was only three weeks ago that tsunami was mostly a metaphor. Up until March 11, the day that a massive 9.0 earthquake and an accompanying tsunami hit Japan, the word was being used in news stories to describe all kinds of trends and surges: An op-ed in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution talked about “the senior tsunami (of hunger) beginning to cast its long shadow across all our communities”; a blog at The Wall Street Journal quoted someone talking about a “cheating tsunami...defining college athletics today”; at Computerworld we could have read about the “coming tsunami of Android tablets.”

And then the metaphorical use of tsunami disappeared. Suddenly, there was only one tsunami, and it was the one that had hit northeastern Honshu. It’s unlikely that writers were concerned that readers would possibly be confused with reference to the real event. What happened is that writers confronted with the literal tsunami now had to look at the metaphor in a new light.

As Michael Quinion of World Wide Words pointed out last week, tsunami (derived from the Japanese words for harbor and wave) used to be a highly technical term, mostly restricted to seismologists and oceanographers, who were more concerned with the mechanics of the earth’s behavior than the word’s symbolic value. Authors noticed its potential, however, and tsunami started to catch on as a metaphor, especially in more literary writing. In 1970, in his novel “Moving On,” Larry McMurtry used the phrase “a tsunami of feminism.” Vanity Fair in 1991 had James Wolcott writing about “the new tsunami of Japanese fiction,” and Salman Rushdie used the word in its full context in 1999 in “The Ground Beneath Her Feet”: “The earthquake has already claimed her but after the earthquake comes the tidal wave, drowning Vina under the tsunami of her selves.” Tidal wave might be more common, but tsunami had a slightly cooler, more exotic appeal, and over time it became just another figure of speech.

In some ways, this is just what English does. Speakers and writers frenetically produce and voraciously consume metaphors, always looking for striking new images to give our language fresh power. Over time, with repeated use, the sharp edges of those striking images are worn down, and they become clichés. We tend to assume that this process only runs one direction, and that the language is constantly being watered down — literally has lost most of its power as it becomes just a figurative term, and tremendous and dreadful no longer carry their original power of inspiring trembling and dread.

But as soon as real human lives are affected, a kind of reset happens, no matter how tired and domesticated the metaphor. Compassion seems to have the power of returning even watered-down metaphors to full strength. Many of us have run into this from time to time when we both say and immediately stumble over a casual “do you see my point?” or “take a look” when talking to a person who is visually disabled, or even saying “I was a little short with him” when talking to a petite friend.

When the tsunami hit last month, this feeling swept the entire culture, as though we suddenly woke up to what we’d really been saying all along. Words such as awesome, once tamed, can’t be restored to their former state — and indeed most metaphorical uses don’t tend to be boxed out by the fact that we still need to use the “real” meanings sometimes. (The presence of a real-life acrobat hanging from a trapeze over their shoulder wouldn’t prevent writers from describing overwrought phrases as “verbal acrobatics.”)

But destructive metaphors (tsunami, of course, but also tornado, hurricane, tidal wave, and volcano) seem to be only on loan, to be called back to their previous roles at a moment’s notice. In fact the Japanese disaster was unique, or nearly so, in revoking two metaphors at the same time: The subsequent events at the Fukushima Daiichi power plant immediately made meltdown seem totally wrong for a starlet’s tantrum or an outburst from your boss.

Our hunger for metaphor can sometimes be all-consuming: Fresh figures of speech are a large part of what feeds our delight in language, and without them we’d be immersed in bland declarative statements, without the power to force different perspectives or points of view. The discovery of an apt or striking metaphor is one of the true joys of writing and reading, and the flexibility with which words can depart from their normal environments to take up entirely new lives in completely different situations is usually something to celebrate.

The danger, though, comes when we assume that the metaphorical use is all there is, and forget about the literal reality below the surface of the words we say. We talk about a “tsunami of information” or a toddler’s “meltdown,” we turn the near-inconceivable event into the quotidian daily occurrence. And so we think we know what a tsunami or a meltdown is, until we realize we had absolutely no idea.

Erin McKean is a lexicographer and founder of E-mail her at