Shakes on a plain.
Dear Word Detective: Immediately after the mid-April, mid-continent earthquake, I heard a news commentator use the word “temblor.” I presumed that he had misspoken either “trembler” or “tremor,” but afterwards I saw the word in print in an article regarding the same event. My American Heritage Dictionary (published in 1976, edited by your father, as I believe) lists the word and says that it is from Spanish “temblar.” How long has this been in use in English, and (nothing against Spanish) why do we need this word, besides the Latin “tremor” and Old English “quake”? I presume that in California news people get tired of saying the same word over and over, so come up with different terms; but here in mid-America, where tornadoes are nearly as frequent, “tornado,” “funnel,” and the occasional “twister” seem to fill the need just fine. — Charles Anderson.
Ah yes, the Midwest earthquake of April 18. It was centered in Illinois and supposedly felt in our area of Ohio, but I slept through it and it didn’t seem to have broken anything in the house. Then again, when you live with cats like ours, coming downstairs in the morning to find broken crockery and books all over the floor is hardly uncommon, so I might not have known if it had.
By the way, your American Heritage Dictionary is the second edition; my father, William Morris, was Editor-in-Chief of the first edition, published in 1969. He was not fond of the second edition, which he felt had compromised his work, but though highly of the third edition.
Your email uses the spelling “temblor,” as does the current fourth edition of the American Heritage Dictionary, but the Oxford English Dictionary also spells it “tremblor,” so there’s yet another word for Action News 6 at 5 to deploy. It’s interesting, by the way, that here in the Midwest we usually worry about atmospheric eruptions (tornadoes, etc.), while in California it’s largely geologic malfunctions (earthquakes, mudslides, etc.) that cause trouble. If they’re now sending us their earthquakes, I definitely think we should at least share our cicadas and June bugs. I hate June bugs.
Onward. Both “temblor” and “tremblor” do indeed come from the American Spanish “temblar” (or “temblor”), derived from the Latin “tremere,” meaning “to tremble or shake.” The same family tree also gave us the English words “tremble,” “tremor” and “tremendous” (originally describing something so awful as to inspire fearful trembling). The earliest citation in the Oxford English Dictionary for “temblor” is from 1876 (“The temblor has swallowed him,” Bret Harte, “Gabriel Conroy”), and for “tremblor,” 1913. As for why we need either word, I suppose we don’t, really. But given the Spanish cultural heritage in California, it’s natural that the word would have developed and be widely known.