March 11, 2011

What it's like to be swept away by a tsunami

The best movie depiction of how terrifying it is to be swept up in a tidal wave that I've ever seen is the opening of the recent Clint Eastwood movie Hereafter, which will be out on DVD next Tuesday. You can see Clint's depiction of the 2004 Indonesian tsunami on Youtube here. I watched home videos shot by survivors who managed to keep their cameras above the water, and Hereafter's version looks about right about what it would be like if you couldn't.

By the way, it's time to revive the old term "tidal wave" as a complement to the Japanese term "tsunami." During my childhood, most Americans used the term tidal wave, but scientists and science journalists waged a war against it on the simpleminded grounds that tidal waves weren't caused by tides. So, by switching to tsunami, we lost the metaphorically powerful term tidal wave, which does a much better job of hinting at the peculiar horror of this phenomenon compared to normal waves. It's not the height of the front of the tidal wave that is so destructive -- lots of people have surfed waves as tall. It's that, unlike regular beach waves, the water level doesn't go down after the front passes. It's as if the tide has suddenly risen, but with a great velocity to the water rolling in. In cross-section, a tidal wave isn't an inverted V, it's like an inverted L that just keeps going.

38 comments:

Anonymous said...

Tsunami (literally 'harbor wave") is clearly a more accurate term than tidal wave.

I mean, it's foreign.

You must be a xenophobe to prefer the traditional western word.

Kylie said...

Since you often refrain from posting on topical subjects, I was hoping iSteve would be a tsunami-free zone but no luck.

I just had the tsunami nightmare again last week. Now I'm really dreading going to sleep.

Of all my phobias, my fear of being overwhelmed by water is by far the worst.

sabril said...

We are debating this on Halfsigma's blog and it's worth noting that English is full of accepted words and phrases which are inaccurate either technically or etymologically or both.

For example, most engineers do not actually work on engines.

And when most people dial a phone number, they are not actually using a dial -- they are pushing buttons.

And the "accelerator" of a car normally refers to the gas pedal even though the brake pedal and steering wheel are technically accelerators.

dearieme said...

What should we have called "karate" then?

Baloo said...

Sabril, sure — that's the way language evolves. It's not at all peculiar to English. But English (and, coincidentally, Japanese) has a tendency to have near synonyms — one from Anglo-Saxon, one from French, and one from Latin (sometimes thru a later form of French). Kingly, royal, regal. Head, chief, captain. In the case of Japanese, it's Japanese, Chinese, English. And borrowed foreign words often take on a slightly different meaning in English — sombrero, luftwaffe, sushi. Fascinating subject. For language geeks, anyway.

Anonymous said...

It feels like worshiping Obama.

Anonymous said...

You are wrong about why the term tidal wave is criticized in referring to a tsunami. The real reason is that there is such a thing as a tidal wave, and it is caused by tides. I'm sure you can learn all about them on Wikipedia.

Steve Sailer said...

No, what you see daily in the Bay of Fundy and a few other places is usually called a tidal bore. Back when I was a little kid, the term tidal wave was understood by the general public to mean what we now call a tsunami.

Baloo said...

Yes, but 'tidal bore' is ambiguous, too. People will think you're talking about Al Gore.

slumber_j said...

Tidal waves *are* called "tsunamis," just as Spanish Gypsies are called "gitanos" and Peking is called "Beijing." And Rome is "Roma," dammit! What's wrong with you people?

Oh: right. Rome is called "Rome." Why is that, I wonder? Aren't we good enough to condescend to the capital of Italy?

I did notice that the TV people did start calling Turin "Torino" during the '06 Winter Olympics--apparently not having realized that it's actually an honor for one's city to be given a different name in a foreign language. (See: "Londres" and "Nueva York.")

So maybe the day's not far off when we'll be strongly encouraged to say "Milano" and "Pairee." At least then the nonsense will be consistent. Which is something.

slumber_j said...

Tidal waves *are* called "tsunamis," just as Spanish Gypsies are called "gitanos" and Peking is called "Beijing." And Rome is "Roma," dammit! What's wrong with you people?

Oh: right. Rome is called "Rome." Why is that, I wonder? Aren't we good enough to condescend to the capital of Italy?

I did notice that the TV people did start calling Turin "Torino" during the '06 Winter Olympics--apparently not having realized that it's actually an honor for one's city to be given a different name in a foreign language. (See: "Londres" and "Nueva York.")

So maybe the day's not far off when we'll be strongly encouraged to say "Milano" and "Pairee." At least then the nonsense will be consistent. Which is something.

Anonymous said...

Steve - just before the earthquake hit, there was [what otherwise would have been] a huge HBD story from Japan that was breaking on the wires:

U.S. replaces diplomat for alleged remarks disparaging Okinawa.
2011/03/11
asahi.com

Seeking to contain the fallout from very undiplomatic remarks by a U.S. diplomat, the United States on Thursday mollified Japan by replacing the official who allegedly said Okinawans practiced "extortion."

In Tokyo, officials were visibly pleased at the speed with which Washington moved to ensure there would be no rupture in U.S. relations with Japan.

Kurt Campbell, the visiting U.S. assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs, informed Foreign Minister Takeaki Matsumoto in a meeting Thursday morning that Kevin Maher, director of Japan affairs at the State Department, had been replaced by Rust Deming, according to a statement released by the U.S. Embassy.

Maher triggered an uproar after reports emerged of comments he allegedly made to college students last December. In addition to saying that Okinawan citizens are masters of extortion, Maher described Okinawans as lazy, according to students who attended the lecture and took notes...

Anonymous said...

I think "tidal bore" in now being used in lieu of "tidal wave" primarily to alleviate confusion caused by the popular misconception that the phrase tidal wave implies an earthquake induced wave.

Steve Wood said...

In the 60s and 70s, I remember being taught that both "tidal wave" and "tsunami" were wrong. At the time, the approved scientific term was "seismic sea wave." Can't imagine why that didn't catch on.

Meanwhile, there is some good news: Apparently all the problems in Libya have been solved. This is demonstrated by the fact that the all-Libya all the time coverage has converted literally overnight into non-stop coverage of the tragic but much more photogenic disaster in Japan. I guess there's nothing more to report from Libya.

One big plus is that the quake and tsunami don't make us feel bad the way the Libyan situation does because - as story after story loves to repeat - we're helping. This is much easier on the American public conscience than watching the gradual, painful demise of (according to the media) the heroic rebel movement and the inevitable triumph of the evil bad guy, while the West stands by and does nothing but wring its hands. This is especially true when just a couple of weeks ago all the media pundits were insisting that Gaddafi couldn't last. Guess he fooled us, huh?

Watching the news cycle and the motivations behind it is often more interesting than the news itself.

beowulf said...

At least school children in England are taught both terms. Otherwise I fear this poor girl would have to play charades or use a whiteboard to get the idiot adults up to speed.

PHUKET, Thailand - Quick-thinking 10-year-old Tilly Smith is being hailed as a hero after saving her parents and dozens of fellow vacationers from the deadly tsunami - thanks to a school geography lesson... the sea rushed out and began to bubble. The adults were curious, but Tilly froze in horror. "Mummy, we must get off the beach now!" she told her mother. "I think there's going to be a tsunami."

The adults didn't understand until Tilly added the magic words:

"A tidal wave."

Her warning spread like wildfire. Within seconds, the beach was deserted....

http://www.thaivisa.com/forum/topic/23997-10-year-old-girl-saves-dozens-from-tsunami/

Anonymous said...

I grew up reading books about tidal waves and being fascinated by them, but the 70s and 80s were low points for massive seismic activity in the oceans. It wasn't until the big Indonesian wave that we had a big one that all of the newfangled camcorders were able to capture as it happened.

Anonymous said...

When is the rioting and the looting gonna start? That's what I'm waiting for.

Bruce said...

In cross-section, a tidal wave isn't an inverted V, it's like an inverted L that just keeps going.

Steve,

Technically what your are trying to say is that it has a much longer wavelength. While a normal wave may have a wavelength of a few meters, a tsunami may have a wavelength of many hundreds of meters or even kilometers.

-Bruce

Anonymous said...

MSM is nationalist in the worst possible way when covering stories like this. The main news is obviously DISASTER IN JAPAN, but so much of the news has been about bogus waves in Hawaii, some American guy in Japan who ran out of food(on Nightline), etc, etc. And during the Indonesian tsunami, one of the major news was the fate of some Western fashion model when over 100,000 people may have died. This is Ugly American nationalism.
MSM isn't for protecting our borders, but when there's a major disaster in another part of the world, the story is invariably turned into 'how have Americans been affected' EVEN WHEN Americans haven't been affected much at all.

Chicago said...

I haven't heard any news stories about the Japanese looting and rioting yet. What gives? Strange people, the Japanese, not using a catastrophe like this as an opportunity to rob, rape, murder and pillage others.

Dahlia said...

Kylie said...

I just had the tsunami nightmare again last week. Now I'm really dreading going to sleep.

Of all my phobias, my fear of being overwhelmed by water is by far the worst.
---------

When I was a teen, I had to be rescued from the wave pool at one of the water parks here in Florida. Scary and embarrassing. I also had nightmares for weeks after, but none since. A fiery death is my worst nightmare.

Gc said...

"MSM is nationalist in the worst possible way when covering stories like this."

Not really. The other extreme is the worst. I remember that after the Indonesian Tsunami Swedish media gave a "balanced coverage". 1000+ Swedes got killed in that Tsunami.

Wes said...

I haven't seen the movie but I can just imagine how grizzly and dark it is, given the brutally anti-life nature of the movies Clint Eastwood directs. I assume at least this one was anti-American or anti-White, like most of his recent movies.

Anonymous said...

I did notice that the TV people did start calling Turin "Torino" during the '06 Winter Olympics--apparently not having realized that it's actually an honor for one's city to be given a different name in a foreign language.

It was worse than that--NBC apparently decided to ignore the fact that "Turin" actually is the name in the local dialect that people who live there use--"Torino" is the rendering in "standard" Italian (i.e. the Tuscan dialect that the newly-united Italian state coronated as standard in the late 19th c.)

Stephen Lins said...

I'm looking forward to the definitive Sailer take on the Japanese earthquake. So far, despite the devastation, I find no reports of looting or other lawless behavior. Compare and contrast with Haiti, New Orleans, etc. Also, it will be interesting to see how quickly the Japanese rebuld these damaged areas and learn what worked and what didn't in their earthquake preparations. Will their lack of "diversity" cause weakness in all this?

Kylie said...

" A fiery death is my worst nightmare."

Thank you, Dahlia. I collect new phobias the way a sweater picks up lint.

I guess I'm less afraid of fire because I'm so careful to avoid it. There are oceans all around us from which we cannot escape.

OK, so I'm a thousand miles from the nearest ocean--but look on a map and a thousand miles is just two or three inches! And look at how fast that tsunami traveled, faster than any forest fire I can recall.

I'm going to stay in full avoidance mode till this whole thing is over.

Kylie said...

"I haven't heard any news stories about the Japanese looting and rioting yet. What gives? Strange people, the Japanese, not using a catastrophe like this as an opportunity to rob, rape, murder and pillage others."

Apparently the Japanese government isn't as racist as the American government. The racist American government deliberately weakened those levees in New Orleans so the black people left stranded when Hurricane Katrina hit. Those blacks who weren't drowned were then rounded up and interred in a stadium to be robbed, raped and beaten. It was an act of genocide, pure and simple.

Gene Berman said...

"Ugly American" nationalism.

Speaking of word confusion, this is an outstanding example. In the many years since "The Ugly American" was published, the term has come to be associated almost exclusively--every single time, to my rememberance--with American acting badly abroad.

But in the book, the "ugly American" is the hero--an engineer who helps the native population (Vietnam, I think) in very many ways and endears himself to them (in contrast to official reps--what we would call "suits"--who are uniformly contemptuous of the natives and their ways (and let it show).

I never read the book but read a review "back in the day."

mmaatttt said...

You mean you really think 2004 did not completely solidify the strength of the term "tsunami"? Seriously?

Gene Berman said...

Wes--

It's "grisly" (if you can bear it).

Anonymous said...

Sorry, I can't agree. There are true tidal waves in the Bay of Fundy and at Mt. Sainte Michelle. Since these exist and are clearly not the same as what we used to call tidal waves it seems wise to have separate terms.

The irony came when to distinguish newly understood wave types they called these earthquake initiated waves tsunamis. Only later did the geologists come to realize that in the Japanese language tsunami means "tidal wave" - the same mistake made by Westerners.

But that was then. Tsunami now means tsunami - a full ocean depth, fast moving wave usually caused by an earthquake or underwater land slide that is imperceptible on the surface in deep water but which can mount to great heights in shallow water.

When I was a kid no one knew what a tsunami was or how it differed from a regular ocean wave. Much more recently we have learned what a rogue wave is.

Leslie Nielsen in the original Poseidon Adventure drown thinking he had been hit by a tidal wave (or tsunami). By the remake last year oceanography had advanced enough for us to realize that in deep water a true tsunami might only be a foot tall. The Poseidon in the remake was hit by a "Rogue Wave".

Rogue waves are wind powered waves and can rise to great heights in the deep ocean but all their water and all their energy is in the visible wave. If it's fifty feet tall it's powerful but if it's a hundred feet tall it's more powerful yet. Rogues are a kind of "what you see is what you get" waves. Being wind waves they travel at wind speeds.

Tsunamis in contrast are hidden. If the ocean floor at a thousand feet suddenly drops it causes the thousand foot column column of water above it to be displaced. In the deep ocean the wave may only look a foot tall but its a thousand feet (or more) deep. It's like an explosion and the shock waves spread very damn fast.

This kind of wave is so distinct and so dangerous that we needed a new word. But instead we appropriated an existing Japanese word that meant something else. It's too late to change now. The highway departments have already stamped out the signs warning of tsunamis.

Albertosaurus

Scrutineer said...

A Japanese friend in Tokyo who was reading U.S. coverage of the disaster last night asked me, "why does your press call it a tsunami and not a tidal wave?"

It reminds me of the old SNL skit about newscasters overpronouncing spanish words.

Anonymous said...

Maybe regions facing tsunami danger should require every family to own a tsunami-bubble-vessel. It would be an enclosed plastic vessel which could fit around 4 people. Bottom part will be heavier while top part will have air pipe. People enter inside and get carried with the water. At least they'll survive.

Anonymous said...

My geology professor (20 years ago)used to criticize the term "tidal wave" as well. He said the more accurate term would be "seismic wave." But of course that would only apply to those large waves caused by seismic forces.

Anonymous said...

Maybe tsunami-danger zones should build a bunch of 50 ft hightowers so people can climb from danger right away.

Anonymous said...

The natural disaster or the revolution will be digicammed and cellphoned.

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-pacific-12725646

DCThrowback said...

Jimmy Kimmel shares his fears of tidal waves while recounting his experience in Bora Bora a few days ago.

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/jimmy-kimmel/jimmy-kimmel-tsunami_b_835389.html

Anonymous said...

sabril:
And the "accelerator" of a car normally refers to the gas pedal even though the brake pedal and steering wheel are technically accelerators.

Someone here knows something about physics? I don't believe it!