We had an earthquake in northern California in the middle of the night on Sunday. Centered in Napa County, where it did some significant damage. Down here on the peninsula, we got some long shaking, but not much otherwise. My windows rattled, but nothing was harmed; not even the pictures on my walls were deranged.

Then there’s the media coverage, which prominently uses (in all quake reporting, but especially in headlines) the word temblor, which I don’t think I’ve ever heard in ordinary conversation; it seems to be a journalists’ word.

Maybe some journalists think that temblor is a technical, precise term and that (earth)quake is a colloquial and less precise term, but I can find no evidence for this idea. All the dictionaries I’ve looked at, plus the Associated Press Stylebook, treat temblor as a straightforward synonym for earthquake, with no referential distinction.

It’s true that temblor is shorter than earthquake, so it’s handy for for headlines. But the clipped quake is shorter than temblor, and has the advantage of easy comprehension. (Tremor is also compact and easy to understand.) But newspapers like the exotic temblor.

According to NOAD2, temblor entered English in the late 19th century, from American Spanish. In Spanish the word means ‘trembling, shaking’, or in a specialized sense ‘earthquake’, as an abbreviated version of temblor de tierra ‘shaking of the earth’.

Shake, rattle, and roll.

One Response to “temblor”

  1. Bob Richmond Says:

    I remember when I was a kid 65 years ago wondering what the word “temblor” meant when I read it in a newspaper. It remains in its journalese niche, with as far as I know no use in geology.

    My real geological journalese bête noir though is “epicenter’. Just now on NPR I heard that Monrovia is the epicenter of the Ebola virus disease epidemic, and that cases are being greatly underreported. Is that because most of the patients are already underground? An earthquake (or temblor) occurs deep in the Earth, and the epicenter is the point on the surface where seismic activity is strongest.

    This misuse of “epicenter” is new since I was a boy.

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