The Grammarphobia Blog

Storm watch: williwaw

Q: I enjoyed your posting about the weather term “derecho.” I taught 8th-grade earth science for several years and talked about many weather terms. My favorite is “williwaw.” Do you know its origin?

A: We can’t tell you why a sudden, violent storm is called a “williwaw,” but the term apparently originated among sailors in the 19th century.

The Oxford English Dictionary has only a question mark for the origin of “williwaw,” and none of our other etymological sources are helpful. So the source of the term must remain a mystery—at least for now.

The OED defines the word, formerly spelled in a number of ways, as “a sailor’s (whaler’s, etc.) name for a sudden violent squall, orig. in the Straits of Magellan.”

The OED’s earliest citation for the word is from an 1842 quotation by the botanist Sir Joseph Dalton Hooker: “A squall or Williewaw, as they are called [round Cape Horn].”

A second comes from another 19th-century scientist, the meteorologist Robert Fitzroy. In a footnote in The Weather Book (1863), Fitzroy wrote: “Those whirlwind squalls, formerly called by the sealers in Tierra del Fuego, ‘williwaws.’ ”

The OED’s third and last citation is from Rudyard Kipling’s novel Kim (1901): “Where storm and wandering wullie-wa got up to dance.”

Standard dictionaries give “williwaw” a more specific meaning.

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.), has two definitions: “(1) A violent gust of cold wind blowing seaward from a mountainous coast, especially in the Straits of Magellan. (2) A sudden gust of wind; a squall.”

While Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) has similar definitions for the storm, it adds a third, figurative usage: “a violent commotion.” The dictionary’s updated online edition gives an example: “the surprise verdict of the jury created a wild williwaw as reporters rushed to file their stories.”

The Merriam-Webster’s entry doesn’t mention the Straits of Magellan, at the tip of South America. And the williwaws in the titles of several novels take place toward the other end of the globe, in the frigid waters off coastal Alaska.

Gore Vidal’s Williwaw (1945), for example, is a World War II tale about a US Army freighter in the Aleutians. And Tom Bodette’s Williwaw! (1999) is a children’s novel about two kids trying to cross an Alaskan bay in a skiff.

So although the earliest recorded uses of “williwaw” come from the Straits of Magellan, it’s been suggested that the word might have come from Aleut or some other native North American language.

Vidal’s novel contains this footnote: “Williwaw is the Indian word for a big wind peculiar to the Aleutian islands and the Alaskan coast.”

However, all the standard dictionaries we consulted agree with the OED that the origin of “williwaw” is unknown.

The word was familiar to American servicemen who fought the Japanese in the Aleutians during World War II under extreme weather conditions.

“Williwaw” crops up in Brian Garfield’s The Thousand-Mile War (1995), an account of the Aleutian campaign. And it’s given pride of place in the title of another book about the Aleutian fighting, The Williwaw War (1992), by Donald M. Goldstein and Katherine V. Dillon.

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