Isn’t earthquake a noun and the preceding word an adjective? Isn’t “Japanese” the adjectival form of “Japan”?

  • 16
    I'm not altogether sure we do say "Japan earthquake"; I, for one, would call it "the Japanese earthquake" — and, anyway, the way your question is phrased is an example of complex question. You haven't proven your assertion, but your question is asked as though it were true.
    – Robusto
    Commented Mar 28, 2011 at 12:39
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    @Robusto: Another way to look at this question is "why should it ever be 'Japan earthquake'?"
    – Kosmonaut
    Commented Mar 28, 2011 at 12:42
  • 1
    @Kosmonaut: We are chatting about this very issue right now. Join the fun.
    – Robusto
    Commented Mar 28, 2011 at 12:45
  • 3
    Also nouns are used as modifiers. It is not true that what precedes a noun is always an adjective; see for example "32-bit computer."
    – apaderno
    Commented Mar 28, 2011 at 12:46
  • 4
    Direct link to the beginning of the chat discussion.
    – RegDwigнt
    Commented Mar 28, 2011 at 13:01

8 Answers 8


Because when we describe the earthquake we are talking about its location. Plus, earthquakes don't themselves, by their nature, have a connection with a specific nationality—they are not like Japanese food, clothes, tea, that are specific to the Japanese people.

  • 8
    I think we would normally say "earthquake in Japan", rather than "Japanese earthquake"; I suspect "Japan earthquake" is just newswriting shorthand for that phrase, rather than using a different, more awkward phrase.
    – RMorrisey
    Commented Mar 28, 2011 at 15:44

I suppose because it is referring to a place as in "an Atlantic storm" whereas to say a "Japanese earthquake" would imply there was something Japanese in its nature.

  • 4
    except that Atlantic is an adjective Commented Mar 28, 2011 at 10:12
  • 7
    Plus there is something Japanese in its nature: its location. Commented Mar 28, 2011 at 10:20
  • Yes - that was a bad example, sorry
    – mgb
    Commented Mar 28, 2011 at 15:44

Fewer syllables = Catchier headlines, once one media outlet has started using it everyone else jumps on the bandwagon and it becomes a meme.

  • 1
    +1 for 'Sometimes logic and thought on the meaning makes a good story, and it ends up being something irrelevant and practical'.
    – Mitch
    Commented Mar 28, 2011 at 14:10

I'm not sure there is necessarily a rule for this type of situation - that is, when to use the name of the country and when to use the adjectival form. I think in many cases it's decided almost unconsciously based on what rolls off the tongue the easiest. The 'n' at the end of 'Japan' flows nicely into the vowel at the start of 'earthquake'. On the other hand, if an earthquake occurred in India it would feel odd to say "the India earthquake" - we may be more inclined to say "the Indian earthquake". English is riddled with these kinds of inconsistencies as we all know.

  • 5
    +1 You make a good point. If it had been near or in America, it would have been called an American earthquake, and not an America earthquake. I think the rule is whatever sounds better.
    – Neil
    Commented Mar 28, 2011 at 8:45
  • Which brings up the question of when a country name would be used versus when to use the name of a couple of continents. Strictly speaking, an "American earthquake" could be anywhere from Canada to Argentina.
    – T.Rob
    Commented Mar 28, 2011 at 10:59
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    I am extremely skeptical about this. First of all, I don't see any problem with pronouncing two vowels in a row, and I would most certainly never say "the Californian earthquake" instead of "the California earthquake" (and both COCA and Google agree with me). Secondly, grammar doesn't just go out of the window "based on what rolls off the tongue the easiest" (besides, what's "easy" and what's not differs from person to person). Lastly, Japanese ends in a consonant sound, just as Japan, so your point doesn't apply in this particular case anyway.
    – RegDwigнt
    Commented Mar 28, 2011 at 11:28

Because the earthquake is not 'manufactured' by the Japanese as in Japanese Sushi.

  • +1 I can definitely see that as a possible motivation (and I had that thought as well -- I usually use 'the earthquake in Japan' for this reason).
    – jbelacqua
    Commented Mar 29, 2011 at 3:29
  • 2
    So American earthquakes are manufactured in America? Commented Oct 1, 2012 at 11:38

I think that it is referring to a place rather than being of a type or nationality.

If the earthquake was in America it could be an earthquake in America.

It's not possible to say America earthquake because there's 2 vowels so putting the country after the noun works well.

Of course that is if emphasis or beauty of the title is not taken into account.

The decision to use one rather than the other is not rational.


I think we would also say "Haiti earthquake" as opposed to "Haitian earthquake." It is the place, not the people, which is addressed, and therefore does not use the adjective form for the people. English is one of those rare languages with multiple adjective forms. Consider, for example, the difference between "butter fingers" and "buttered popcorn." Or perhaps, "China town" versus "Chinese restaurant." We use the noun form for one meaning, and the adjective form for another.

In this case, the place is significant. If the earthquake happened in Spain, it would the Spain earthquake, not the Spanish earthquake, nor the Spaniard earthquake.


Now I've only rarely heard it called "The Japan Earthquake", but I'd imagine that it would be used in the same way as:

  • The California Gold Rush

  • The San Francisco Earthquake

  • etc

"Japanese Earthquake" would mean that there is something inherently different (and specifically Japanese) about this earthquake compared to others.

Like the above examples, I'd imagine that it would just be called the "Japan Earthquake" because that's where it was.

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