Word Routes

Exploring the pathways of our lexicon

Temblor Shakes the East Coast (or Was it a Tremblor?)

Yesterday, the east coast of the United States was struck by a 5.8-magnitude earthquake — or, as it was frequently described in news accounts, a "temblor." Fortunately, the damage caused by the quake was limited, so instead we can contemplate the question: what the heck is a temblor? Or should the word be tremblor?

The use of the term temblor for an earthquake is from Spanish, where it means "trembling." The word evidently entered English through the Spanish spoken in Latin America and the earthquake-prone west coast of the United States. The Oxford English Dictionary currently lists its earliest citation from Gabriel Conroy, an 1876 novel by Bret Harte, set in the San Francisco area:

The following afternoon at four o'clock Arthur Poinsett reached San Geronimo, within fifteen miles of his destination. Here the dispatch was confirmed with some slight local exaggeration. "Saints and devils! There is no longer a St. Anthony! The temblor has swallowed him!" said the innkeeper, sententiously.

But some searching on Google Books turns up a number of examples from travel accounts of English-speaking visitors to Central and South America in the 1820s:

In the course of a long walk, which our party took after dinner, an earthquake was felt. We were walking slowly along, when the gentlemen stopped, and one of them seeing us look surprised at their doing so, called out, "Temblor!" (earthquake.)
—Basil Hall, Extracts from a Journal Written on the Coasts of Chili, Peru, and Mexico (1824)
No earthquake occurred during my residence in Chile, excepting a temblor, or gentle shake, which I experienced at St. Jago, about eight o'clock in the morning, on my return from Peru.
—Alexander Caldcleugh, Travels in South America During the Years 1819-20-21 (1825)
On inquiry I found this general movement was caused by a temblor, a slight shock of an earthquake, to which as strangers we were yet insensible; for neither of us experienced the least sensation.
—John Miers, Travels in Chile and La Plata (1826)
Description of a Temblor, or Shock of an Earthquake.
—Charles Brand, Journal of a Voyage to Peru (1828)

Interestingly, some of these early uses don't treat temblor as exactly synonymous with earthquake, instead describing it as a "gentle shake" or "slight shock of an earthquake," perhaps closer to the Spanish meaning of the word. But no matter: temblor increasingly found a place in English (especially after the 1906 San Francisco quake), and it came to be pluralized as temblors rather than the Spanish-style temblores. The pronunciation also shifted as the word became Anglicized, with the more Spanish "tem-BLORE" gradually giving way to "TEM-bler." (Most American dictionaries continue to list both as possibilities.)

As temblor joined the lexicon, it unsurprisingly got a bit mixed up with some other words already in English, like tremor and trembler — all of which ultimately go back to the Latin root tremulus, meaning "trembling." Thus, temblor was altered by some American writers who thought it ought to be tremblor instead. The OED dates tremblor to 1913, and we still occasionally find the word in earthquake reporting, as in pieces yesterday on the Huffington Post and the Atlantic Wire. But temblor is the standard form, and it has been firmly embraced by the Associated Press and other media outlets.

In fact, some might argue that the AP has an unnatural affection for the word temblor. On his Arrant Pedantry blog, editor/linguist Jonathon Owen recently griped about the unnecessary use of temblor by the AP. Out of all the possible synonyms for earthquake, only temblor, he notes, gets special treatment in the AP Stylebook (which counsels writers to avoid tremblor). Consulting the Corpus of Contemporary American English, he finds that temblor is used far more often in newspaper journalism than in any other type of writing, and wonders why this is so:

So why does temblor get singled out? I honestly don't know. I do know that journalists are fond of learning synonyms to avoid tiring out common words, and I know that at least some journalists take the practice to unreasonable levels, such as the teacher who made her students memorize 120 synonyms for said. Whatever the reason, journalists seem to have latched on to temblor, though few others outside the fields of newspaper and magazine writing have picked it up.

A commenter on the Arrant Pedantry blog notes that temblor often appears in the literature of geology and seismology, so I think the attraction to journalists may be that it sounds like a term that an expert would use, as opposed to plain old earthquake. It's similar in some ways to the preference for tsunami over tidal wave, a topic I discussed a few months ago on NPR's Morning Edition. (Tsunami, beyond its exoticism, has the added virtue of avoiding the erroneous implication that the phenomenon has something to do with the tides.) Another point of comparison would be haboob, an Arabic term for a massive dust storm. The use of this foreign weather term to describe recent dust storms in Arizona has engendered some xenophobic reactions among the locals there. But temblor has been part of English for long enough that it no longer seems foreign — instead, it's just journalism-ese.

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Ben Zimmer is language columnist for The Wall Street Journal and former language columnist for The Boston Globe and The New York Times Magazine. He has worked as editor for American dictionaries at Oxford University Press and as a consultant to the Oxford English Dictionary. In addition to his regular "Word Routes" column here, he contributes to the group weblog Language Log. He is also the chair of the New Words Committee of the American Dialect Society. Click here to read more articles by Ben Zimmer.

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Comments from our users:

Wednesday August 24th 2011, 3:56 AM
Comment by: Stan Carey (Galway Ireland)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
I enjoyed finding out about this word's history. Though it gets an airing in the press whenever there's enough seismic activity, it's still fairly unusual. Little wonder it's still sometimes confused with tremor and trembler.

Is journalism-ese in journalism-ese journalese?
Wednesday August 24th 2011, 4:56 AM
Comment by: Alice M. (Neuss Germany)
The use of "temblor" in English is generally geographically restricted to The Americas because of the Spanish influence there, as Ben already explained. It is very uncommon, if not unknown, in other forms of English.

The confusion of "temblor" with "tremor", and the temptation to write the mongrel "tremblor", stems from a transposition phenomenon in Spanish. In all forms of Spanish, the first "r" of the original Latin root "tremere" (to tremble) disappeared, whereas it was retained as such in English as well as in French (tRemblement de terre = earthquake) and probably in other Romance languages. Another example of this Spanish phenomenon, albeit transposition rather than omission, is the word "cRocodile" (English) and "cocodRillo" (Spanish). Why the Spaniards had a problem with the "r" in certain words is beyond me, because Spanish has plenty of other words with "tr" (traje = suit[of clothes]) or "cr" (cruz = cross) combinations. It has just struck me that this could have something to do with the six centuries of Arab influence in Spain.
Wednesday August 24th 2011, 5:26 AM
Comment by: Francisco Javier (Málaga Spain)
I don't consider "temblor" to be in general synonymous with "earthquake" (terremoto) in Spanish. As Ben points out in the article, a "temblor" is a gentle shake and most people in Spain wouldn't call a big earthquake "temblor".
Wednesday August 24th 2011, 5:45 AM
Comment by: Aditya M. (Bhubaneswar India)
Well,m just at "Prodigy" level. i never heard the word "temblor". Yeah , Tremors,is a seismological term. For a layman to understand clearly, I guess trembler is the appropriate term.
Wednesday August 24th 2011, 1:36 PM
Comment by: Esteban (pittsburg, CA)
The word temblor is loosely used in Central America to refer to gentle shakes as well. Interestingly enough the word temblor may be used in a colloquial manner referring to an earthquake too. It seems the word also got mixed up in the Spanish language too.

I was definitely shaken by the use of the word when reading the news.
Friday August 26th 2011, 11:34 AM
Comment by: begum F.Top 10 Commenter
I've planed to attend this fall semester a GEOL course. So, I'm thinking of getting more familiar with the term "temblor."
Mr. Ben's articles are always very helpful for me. Actually, I'm one of his greatest fan.
Watch Out! Temblor!
Wednesday September 7th 2011, 12:23 AM
Comment by: Adam K.

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