English Language & Usage Stack Exchange is a question and answer site for linguists, etymologists, and serious English language enthusiasts. It's 100% free, no registration required.

Sign up
Here's how it works:
  1. Anybody can ask a question
  2. Anybody can answer
  3. The best answers are voted up and rise to the top

What word describes the shape of a whirlwind when seen from above?

  • Swirl
  • Whorl
  • Radial

The shape they make when seen from above resembles a radial pattern or even a whorl.

share|improve this question
They refer to office cubicles. Yes, I know it makes no sense, but that's the sentence I'm translating. :( – Soulz Mar 30 '13 at 8:18
I strongly suspect that you are referring to a whirlpool, not a whirlwind, if only because humans almost never see a whirlwind from above, but usually do see a whirlpool from above. – John M. Landsberg Mar 30 '13 at 8:25
No, whirlwind is correct. To give some more background, the person is dead and is literally 'floating up'. :D – Soulz Mar 30 '13 at 8:27
In any case, I would say that "whorl" is the best descriptive term for this shape. The two other words I would consider close would be "helix" and "corkscrew." Also note that a transected nautilus shell has this pattern. – John M. Landsberg Mar 30 '13 at 8:31
Tornadoes look like snakes, and it doesn’t matter whether you’re looking at them from one place or the other. – tchrist Mar 30 '13 at 17:57
up vote 3 down vote accepted

Perhaps a spiral would be the right shape. This is two-dimensional, and the radius is proportional to the angle of rotation.

[A helix has parallel sides, i.e. could be drawn on the surface of a cylinder (not a cone), so is not quite right.]

share|improve this answer
+1 Yes, you're right about a helix. I admit I was grasping a bit, and had convinced myself that a helix could be something drawn not only on a cylinder, but also on a cone. Do you think there's a name for that type of structure as it would appear if it were indeed drawn on the surface of a cone? – John M. Landsberg Mar 30 '13 at 15:32
If we are avoiding swirl and whorl (alternatives already mentioned in the question), then this is definitely a good choice. – John Y Apr 7 '13 at 23:29

The shape of a whirlwind is an inverted cone. To be precise, it is simply a cone shape, but we usually say "inverted" because we usually think of cones with the pointed end on top. (Even though one of the most common cones in our lives is an ice cream cone, which usually points down.)

share|improve this answer
I think the idea here is that you are looking at the whirlwind from above, so it's not accurate to call it an 'inverted cone'. – Soulz Mar 30 '13 at 8:22
Then your question really needs to be "the shape of a whirlwind as seen from above." This is especially necessary because, as I pointed out, most people never see it from above, and so would think only of the typical inverted cone shape; you need to be aware of this fact as you write. Even if this were not the case, you at least need to be aware that a whirlwind has different apparent shapes depending on the perspective of the observer. Imagine how very different it would look to someone who is being whirled around inside one! – John M. Landsberg Mar 30 '13 at 8:35
You're right. Updated my post. – Soulz Mar 30 '13 at 8:58
It certainly wouldn't look like Kansas. – Edwin Ashworth Mar 30 '13 at 16:44
@EdwinAshworth LOL. – John M. Landsberg Mar 30 '13 at 19:24

Please do not think me facetious if I say my immediate thought is 'whirl' - I'm not sure why you would need something different to describe it. Please see http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/whirl

share|improve this answer
None of the definitions in the linked entry refer to a shape or form. The closest thing that might make sense is whorl. – John Y Apr 7 '13 at 23:26

Your Answer


By posting your answer, you agree to the privacy policy and terms of service.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.