The term tsunami, meaning “harbor wave” in literal translation, comes from the Japanese 津波, composed of the two kanji 津 (tsu) meaning “harbor” and 波 (nami), meaning “wave”. (For the plural, one can either follow ordinary English practice and add an s, or use an invariable plural as in the Japanese.)
There are only a few other languages that have an equivalent native word. In Acehnese language, the words are ië beuna or alôn buluëk (depending on the dialect). In Tamil language, it is aazhi peralai. On Simeulue island, off the western coast of Sumatra in Indonesia, in Devayan language the word is smong, while in Sigulai language it is emong.
In Singkil (in Aceh province) and surrounding, the people use the word gloro/galoro for tsunami. In Nias language, it is called oloro/galoro and in Ende it is called ae mesi nuka tana lala
Tsunami are sometimes referred to as tidal waves. This once-popular term derives from the most common appearance of tsunami, which is that of an extraordinarily high tidal bore. Tsunami and tides both produce waves of water that move inland, but in the case of tsunami the inland movement of water may be much greater, giving the impression of an incredibly high and forceful tide. In recent years, the term “tidal wave” has fallen out of favor, especially in the scientific community, because tsunami actually have nothing to do with tides, which are produced by the gravitational pull of the moon and sun rather than the displacement of water. Although the meanings of “tidal” include “resembling” or “having the form or character of” the tides, use of the term tidal wave is discouraged by geologists and oceanographers.
Seismic sea wave
The term seismic sea wave also is used to refer to the phenomenon, because the waves most often are generated by seismic activity such as earthquakes. Prior to the rise of the use of the term “tsunami” in English-speaking countries, scientists generally encouraged the use of the term “seismic sea wave” rather than the inaccurate term “tidal wave.” However, like “tsunami,” “seismic sea wave” is not a completely accurate term, as forces other than earthquakes – including underwater landslides, volcanic eruptions, underwater explosions, land or ice slumping into the ocean, meteorite impacts, or even the weather when the atmospheric pressure changes very rapidly – can generate such waves by displacing water.
While Japan may have the longest recorded history of tsunamis, the sheer destruction caused by the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami event mark it as the most devastating of its kind in modern times, killing around 230,000 people. The Sumatran region is not unused to tsunamis either, with earthquakes of varying magnitudes regularly occurring off the coast of the island.
Tsunamis are an often underestimated hazard in the Mediterranean Sea region and Europe in general. Of historical and current (with regard to risk assumptions) importance are e.g. the 1755 Lisbon earthquake and tsunami (which was caused by the Azores–Gibraltar Transform Fault), the 1783 Calabrian earthquakes, each causing several ten thousand deaths and the 1908 Messina earthquake and tsunami. The latter took more than 123,000 lives in Sicily and Calabria and is among the most deadly natural disasters in modern Europe. The Storegga Slide in the Norwegian sea and some examples of Tsunamis affecting the British Isles refer to landslide and meteotsunamis predominatly and less to earth quake induced waves.
As early as 426 BC the Greek historian Thucydides inquired in his book History of the Peloponnesian War about the causes of tsunami, and was the first to argue that ocean earthquakes must be the cause.
“The cause, in my opinion, of this phenomenon must be sought in the earthquake. At the point where its shock has been the most violent the sea is driven back, and suddenly recoiling with redoubled force, causes the inundation. Without an earthquake I do not see how such an accident could happen.”
The Roman historian Ammianus Marcellinus (Res Gestae 26.10.15-19) described the typical sequence of a tsunami, including an incipient earthquake, the sudden retreat of the sea and a following gigantic wave, after the 365 AD tsunami devastated Alexandria.