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The term "hurricane" is derived from a word coined by the indigenous people of the Caribbean, according to the Merriam-Webster dictionary.
This claim previously appeared in a 2017 book by comedian and civil rights activist Dick Gregory. While it had rhetorical power, it does not appear to reflect etymological research.
As Hurricane Ian slammed into Florida, social media users spread a false claim about how the word "hurricane" came about.
"The true meaning of hurricane," a Sept. 28 Instagram post read. "The spirit of the African woman who has been stolen, beaten, raped and thrown overboard the slave ships en route to enslaved lands."
The post then claimed that all hurricanes start at the "same point of exodus of Africa." It was flagged as part of Facebook's efforts to combat false news and misinformation on its News Feed. (Read more about our partnership with Facebook.)
We didn't find credible evidence supporting this etymology. The term "hurricane" is derived from "hurakan," a word coined by the Taino, or the indigenous people of the Caribbean, according to the Merriam-Webster dictionary.
It was translated into Spanish in 1526, The Wall Street Journal reported. The Oxford English Dictionary said the word’s initial spelling varied — including "furicano" and "uracan" — before arriving at its current spelling in the late 1600s.
But the background behind this claim is interesting.
"The ‘her-ricane’ interpretation appears to be a kind of folk etymology used for rhetorical purposes regarding the slave trade," Ben Zimmer, a linguist and Wall Street Journal language columnist, told PolitiFact.
A TinEye search revealed that a post with identical wording appeared online in 2017. It appears to be based on folklore the late Dick Gregory, a comedian and civil rights activist, referred to in his 2017 book, "Defining Moments in Black History: Reading Between the Lies."
"The first Africans were brought to America as slaves in 1619. The first hurricane slammed into this place in 1635," Gregory wrote. "I say a hurricane is the spirit of a Black woman. (That’s why it starts with her!)"
It’s a powerful image, but research doesn't support the folk etymology. The syllable "her" isn't in the word’s actual derivation. However, Zimmer told PolitiFact that the Taino word does relate to a goddess figure.
"Regardless of the rhetorical point, this shouldn't be taken as a serious etymology," Zimmer said. "The resemblance of the first syllable of 'hurricane' to the English word ‘her’ is coincidental."
We rate the purported etymology False.
Instagram post, Sept. 28, 2022
Wall Street Journal, An Ancient Name for a Stormy Sea-Born Threat, Nov. 19, 2020
Email interview with Ben Zimmer, language columnist and linguist, Sept. 28, 2022
Oxford English Dictionary, Hurricane, assessed Sept. 28, 2022
Subway Reads, Defining Moments in Black History - Reading Between the Lines, assessed Sept. 28, 2022
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