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shameless pleading






Shakes on a plain.

Dear Word Detective: Immediately after the mid-April, mid-continent earthquake, I heard a news commentator use the word “temblor.” I presumed that he had misspoken either “trembler” or “tremor,” but afterwards I saw the word in print in an article regarding the same event. My American Heritage Dictionary (published in 1976, edited by your father, as I believe) lists the word and says that it is from Spanish “temblar.” How long has this been in use in English, and (nothing against Spanish) why do we need this word, besides the Latin “tremor” and Old English “quake”? I presume that in California news people get tired of saying the same word over and over, so come up with different terms; but here in mid-America, where tornadoes are nearly as frequent, “tornado,” “funnel,” and the occasional “twister” seem to fill the need just fine. — Charles Anderson.

Ah yes, the Midwest earthquake of April 18. It was centered in Illinois and supposedly felt in our area of Ohio, but I slept through it and it didn’t seem to have broken anything in the house. Then again, when you live with cats like ours, coming downstairs in the morning to find broken crockery and books all over the floor is hardly uncommon, so I might not have known if it had.

By the way, your American Heritage Dictionary is the second edition; my father, William Morris, was Editor-in-Chief of the first edition, published in 1969. He was not fond of the second edition, which he felt had compromised his work, but though highly of the third edition.

Your email uses the spelling “temblor,” as does the current fourth edition of the American Heritage Dictionary, but the Oxford English Dictionary also spells it “tremblor,” so there’s yet another word for Action News 6 at 5 to deploy. It’s interesting, by the way, that here in the Midwest we usually worry about atmospheric eruptions (tornadoes, etc.), while in California it’s largely geologic malfunctions (earthquakes, mudslides, etc.) that cause trouble. If they’re now sending us their earthquakes, I definitely think we should at least share our cicadas and June bugs. I hate June bugs.

Onward. Both “temblor” and “tremblor” do indeed come from the American Spanish “temblar” (or “temblor”), derived from the Latin “tremere,” meaning “to tremble or shake.” The same family tree also gave us the English words “tremble,” “tremor” and “tremendous” (originally describing something so awful as to inspire fearful trembling). The earliest citation in the Oxford English Dictionary for “temblor” is from 1876 (“The temblor has swallowed him,” Bret Harte, “Gabriel Conroy”), and for “tremblor,” 1913. As for why we need either word, I suppose we don’t, really.  But given the Spanish cultural heritage in California, it’s natural that the word would have developed and be widely known.

14 comments to Temblor

  • Fernando

    Both “temblor” and “tornado” are Spanish words. I find it interesting that now the word Tornado is preferred in English for that atmospheric phenomenon. Watching the 1930 film The Wizard of Oz, it seems that back then the word of choice was still “cyclone,”which, by the way, is rendered as ciclón, in Spanish. Furthermore, Wikipedia tells us that the same phenomenon is these days called a “hurricane” in the Atlantic and a “cyclon” in the Pacific, so it seems that the term has specialized in meaning, and now Tornado has replaced it for inland use.

  • Sis Caudle

    Dear Word Detective:

    I have also come here to find out what the “new” word “temblor” referred to. Was it a bit smaller than the word I was accustomed to – “tremor”? a bit larger? Did it shake differently than a tremor? Hmmm. No? Just another word for the same ol’ thing? I see.

    (Correction: “He was not fond of the second edition, which he felt had compromised his work, but though[t] highly of the third edition.)

    While I have nothing more to say of changing words just for the fun of it, I did want to say that I grew up in S. California and, besides our share of “temblors”, we also dealt with June bugs – UGH! To my knowledge we did not have cicadas, tho’. ;-)

  • Annoyed

    To me, it makes more sense to use the word “tremblor”. Does the ground ‘tremble” or “temble” during an earthquake? See what I’m getting at? So in my opinion, “temblor” doesn’t sound right or make any sense and I wish the media would stop using it and go back to “tremblor”. I’m just sayin…..

  • Metoo

    I’m with Annoyed. I hate the word. We “tremble” here in the US, we don’t “temble.” It irritates the hell out of me.

    I think I’ll write someone.

  • CRM

    Sigh…there’s a reason our language is interesting, and that is because it draws from other languages. “Tremblor” is a nonsense word that idiots made up because they didn’t understand its derivation from a Spanish term. So, they decided to make up a replacement word that sounds like “tremble”.

    “Temblor” is the proper word in English, borrowed from “temblar” in Spanish. It is these borrowed words that give English its class and distinction.

    It doesn’t matter that the ground doesn’t “temble”.

  • Jon

    CRM says “”Tremblor” is a nonsense word that idiots made up,” and then goes on to misuse the source term. Ahem. “Temblor” and “trembler” are both used as newsdesk slang for earthquake, but in American scientific usage, “temblor” refers only to a single measurable vibration in an earthquake. Using the term “temblor” to refer to a the whole composite event of an earthquake, aftershock, or similar is specifically incorrect. However, though it too is redundant, “trembler” or “tremblor” has a common English root and doesn’t sound quite so illiterate as to borrow a near-identical word from Spanish for an entirely redundant meaning and reduction in precision… and then misspell it.

  • Steve

    The use of temblor is annoying (to me.) We have a perfectly good word… earthquake… and don’t need another one.

  • Michael of Earthquake Territory

    Ditto on Steve’s opinion and feelings. Having not succumbed to an Earthquake in my many years since birth I now refer to them as simply ‘quakes’. It’s got to be a really heartedly felt temblor for me to use the full word Earthquake.

  • I’ve always liked the way temblor looked and sounded; kind of warm, almost liquid, the way it rolls off the tongue. By context, they seem interchangeable, but I would use temblor to describe a more rolling, vibraty quake, and tremor for the more forceful, jerky kind. Just an aesthetic choice, but valid, I believe.

  • Jeff B

    Temblor comes from the Spanish “temblor” which means tremor. (It’s a noun. There is also a verb “temblar,” but we borrowed the NOUN “temblor”)

    Why? We already have a perfectly good word: “TREMOR.”

    Seems like some idiots are trying to impress someone with their high school Spanish.

    I’m not impressed. Now, if we adopted the Icelandic word for tremor, that would be just as stupid, but far more impressive.

  • So many ways to say it

    I’d explain why there are so many words for earthquake in English but am busy curing cancer, ending poverty, stopping violence, helping war torn countries and yes, cleaning up after earthquakes.

  • Charles Kendrick

    During an earthquake, the earth does not temble, it trembles.

  • Tom

    I was born in the early 1960s and grew up in Southern California, where I still live. In my experience, the word of choice for the phenomenon was always “earthquake”, with “trembler” being used occasionally, by some, as an alternative. I’m pretty sure I never heard “temblor” used for at least the first 30 years of my life. I remember thinking that it had been misspelled the first time I saw it and have been annoyed by the word ever since. Somebody please make it go away.

  • Not A Spring Chicken Anymore

    I only just heard it for the first time about half an hour ago. It bothered me so much I had to investigate! Thus, here I am!
    I’m in full agreement with what appears to be the consensus here. It’s my new pet peeve! “Earthquake”, “quake” or “tremor” for me, thank you very much!
    Right up there when television news reporters started using “pleaded” instead of “pled”, as in “The criminal pled guilty to all charges”. I recall that happening sometime in the late ’80s to early ’90s. Ick!
    Hmm… come to think of it, I believe the “pled” to “pleaded” thing was not long after I realized they’d started dropping the apostrophe when Hawai’i was written on the screen.
    Is anyone else around here old enough to remember these examples? They’ve bugged me since I was still pretty young!

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