Saturday, December 26, 2009

On this day: tsunami vs. tidal wave

It was December 26 in 2004 that the tsunami hit. There have been other tsunamis back through the years, but it was the one in 2004 that caused the most damage, or was at least the most widely reported. Before then, tsunamis were rarely in the news, but since 2004 (and 2005, when most of the coverage occurred), they show up quite often.

Still, it seems bizarre. Were there really no tsunamis before 2004? Was 2004's so big that it blew coverage out of proportion to this degree? Nope. The difference, of course, is that befre 2004, we were more likely to call a tsunami by its misnomer, a tidal wave.

 Tidal wave coverage also peaked in coverage in the mid-2000s, but in 2004, not 2005. Many early news reports were about "tidal waves" but, presumably, editors got on board with "tsunami" and the term tidal wave ebbed."Tsunami" has stayed significantly higher since 2004, and "tidal wave" has dropped to pre-1990 levels.

A couple more notes. First, you can see that there were tidal waves in 1946, and 1960, although it becomes more muddled after that. Second, if you look at recent uses of tidal wave in the news, it is more likely to be used as a figure of speech, "a tidal wave of trash" or "an olympic tidal wave" or "a tidal wave of rage." In the past, it was more likely to describe the wave itself. When will we talk about a "tsunami of public outpouring" or a "a tidal wave of applicants"?

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