I'm looking for an equivalent term in English for tsunami. How did people name/describe the phenomenon prior to 1868 -the first time the word was recorded in English according to Etymonline bearing in mind (as stated in the same site) that the word tidal is not a correct synonym?

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    Yes, prior to maybe 1975 this was commonly referred to as a "tidal wave" in the popular press, even though that's an incorrect term.
    – Hot Licks
    Commented May 6, 2015 at 11:47

6 Answers 6


It was, and sometimes still is, called a tidal wave, even though it has nothing to do with tides.

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    I believe tsunamis were called tidal waves because they drain and fill, say, harbors somewhat like tides do. That is, because they resemble tides in their effects, not because they were caused by tides. Commented May 6, 2015 at 12:13
  • @PeterShor - "Tidal wave" is a long-standing idiom for an overwhelming "flood", literal or figurative. For instance, Ngram finds dozens of cases of "tidal wave of grief", going back to 1862 at least. "Tidal wave of fear" is nearly as popular, but only goes back to about 1930. (I wonder what caused that?) So it's not at all surprising that the term would be applied to tsunamis (which were largely unknown in the countries bordering the Atlantic, and hence did not merit a separate term).
    – Hot Licks
    Commented May 6, 2015 at 17:40
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    @Hot Licks: "Tidal wave" meaning "tsunami" goes back to at least 1845. But it looks like I was somewhat wrong about the etymology; the word "tidal wave" was first used to mean "tidal bore", and a tsunami somewhat resembles a tidal bore (although its cause is quite different). Commented May 6, 2015 at 17:50
  • @PeterShor - Yeah, and in that case the author was simply applying the familiar term to the unfamiliar phenomenon.
    – Hot Licks
    Commented May 6, 2015 at 17:54

Tsunami: (it is a unique term in its meaning of big wave caused by a catastrophic event as shown below), the common terms used were tidal wave and seismic sea waves.

  • Tsunami is a Japanese word with the English translation, "harbor wave." Represented by two characters, the top character, "tsu," means harbor, while the bottom character, "nami," means "wave." In the past, tsunamis were sometimes referred to as "tidal waves" by the general public, and as "seismic sea waves" by the scientific community.

  • The term "tidal wave" is a misnomer; although a tsunami's impact upon a coastline is dependent upon the tidal level at the time a tsunami strikes, tsunamis are unrelated to the tides. Tides result from the imbalanced, extraterrestrial, gravitational influences of the moon, sun, and planets. The term "seismic sea wave" is also misleading. "Seismic" implies an earthquake-related generation mechanism, but a tsunami can also be caused by a nonseismic event, such as a landslide or meteorite impact.


  • It should be pointed out that "tidal wave" is also a "harbor wave" -- the term refers not to the simple approach of high tide, but rather the phenomenon of "tidal bores" that can occur in a river or estuary as the tide comes in, due to geological features at the mouth of the river which amplify and focus the effect of the tide. So in effect "tidal wave" and "tsunami" mean the same thing.
    – Hot Licks
    Commented May 6, 2015 at 18:01
  • @Hot Licks - I guess mine is the only answer which refers to harbor wave and explains why these terms don't match perfectly the connotations of tsunami.
    – user66974
    Commented May 6, 2015 at 18:08
  • Yeah, based on etymology "tidal wave" and "tsunami" are exact synonyms. Apparently the techies decided to repurpose "tsunami" in English to have a different meaning, probably based on the observation that "seismic sea waves" are much more common in the Pacific basin.
    – Hot Licks
    Commented May 6, 2015 at 18:14

As above - traditionally, until comparatively recently, a 'tsunami' would have been called a 'tidal wave' in English, dedpite the fact that this term is misleading. The Boxing Day tsunami that devastated SE Asia seemed to be something of a turning point - I can remember TV and radio news in England announcing the catastrophe, and, in some instamces, actually explaining as part of their report that this was a tsunami, and WHY they were using that term instead of 'tidal wave', so although the word may have been recorded in English as far back as 1868, many English speakers were still not using it in daily discourse right up until that point.

  • Hi Tim, welcome to ELU! This is a great commentary on popular historical usage of the incorrect term tidal wave, but I'm afraid it doesn't answer the question of what term was used pre-1868. If you have any source for that, please edit your post and let us know. Thanks!
    – Erich
    Commented May 6, 2015 at 13:23
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    @erich This is an eye-witness account of the earthquake and tsunami in Lisbon, Portugal in 1755. It doesn't seem to use any specific term. legacy.fordham.edu/halsall/mod/1755lisbonquake.asp You might try looking for other contemporary accounts of that event.
    – alephzero
    Commented May 6, 2015 at 19:53

"Tidal wave".

This is in fact a much better term for such waves, as they involve a large dropping of the water-level followed by the wave coming in at a much higher than usual water-level, as if a tidal change had happened.

Still, the fact that they have nothing to do with the mechanism behind tides led to tsunami became more popular despite their having nothing to do with harbours.


In Europe, tsunami are rare occurrences. There was no specific term in English, and probably not in any other European Language.

The most well known tsunami to affect Europe is that which destroyed much of Lisbon on 1 Nov. 1755. It is clear from contemporary accounts that there was no specific word to describe the events of that day. Instead more general, or descriptive terms are used: Flood, Disaster, a coming in of the sea, or the sea rushing the land.

To answer the question directly, before the widespread use of "tsunami", people would refer to a flood from the sea following an earthquake.


Prior to the adoption of 'tsunami' (and omitting tidal-wave as stipulated in your question), the phenomenon was known variously as

water-quake, n.
A seismic disturbance on the sea floor, or experienced at sea. Also: a sudden flood, massive wave, etc., reminiscent of that caused by an earthquake.
1577 R. Holinshed Chron. II. 1039/2 On the Saterday after..chaunced an other earthquake, or as some write, a watershake [margin] waterquake.

or the related and now obsolete, but with early attestation from the same year as water-quake,

† watershake n. Obs. rare = water-quake n.

or, in a noun phrase that seems redundant but that is well attested in the specific sense,

water wave, n.
b. spec. A wave in a large body of water, esp. a sea, caused by a tectonic or geological disturbance such as an earthquake, or by an explosion. Cf. tsunami n.
1851 M. Somerville Physical Geogr. (ed. 3) I. xiii. 270 (note) When an earthquake begins under the ocean, it occasions five distinct series of waves..namely, the earth wave, the water wave, and three other series of waves.

and, finally, the apparently broader yet specifically applied,

sea-quake | seaquake, n.
A convulsion or sudden agitation of the sea from a submarine eruption or earthquake.
1680 C. Ness Compl. Church-hist. 333 This σεισμὸς..is usually understood of an earth-quake, but here 'tis a sea~quake.
1774 O. Goldsmith Hist. Earth I. 121 A violent agitation, or heaving of the sea... This agitation..may be called, for the sake of perspicuity, a sea-quake; and this, also, is produced by volcanoes.
1827 Blackwood's Edinb. Mag. 21 273 The phenomenon called a mare moto or seaquake, ....

'Seismic sea-wave' was in use as early as 1905.

(All block-quoted material from the OED Online.)

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