How to Say “Sharknado” in Ancient Greek: A Linguistic Choose-Your-Own Adventure

There are a few weeks between the ending of my children’s summer activities and the beginning of school. We have been going to parks, zoos, cook-outs, etc. I have been less intense about other work and actually watching some television. I discovered, upon catching up with the SYFY series The Expanse, that a fifth installment of the movie Sharknado has made its debut. So, got to thinking and sent a tweet.

I was surprised about the engagement (people like absurd questions), but not too surprised. I then got distracted by the idea. I have put some of the responses below. Apologies if I missed anyone.

My first thought was: Why is Shark-nado funny?

It is an absurd compound, the word shark plus a part of the word tornado, which has been amusingly reanalyzed as if it were a meaningful suffix. And, by the power of language to utter something into being, it now is a suffix.

Also, it is funny because it sounds like a metaphor but is actually literal: in the made for TV movies, of which there are now five, there is a churning gyro made of sharks.

Etymology, from the OED s.v. “tornado”

Etymology: In Hakluyt and his contemporaries, ternado; from Purchas 1625 onward, turnadotournadotornado. In none of these forms does the word exist in Spanish or Portuguese. But the early sense makes it probable that ternado was a bad adaptation (perhaps originally a blundered spelling) of Spanish tronada ‘thunderstorm’ ( <tronar to thunder), and that tornado was an attempt to improve it by treating it as a derivative of Spanish tornar to turn, return; compare tornado participle, returned. It is notable that this spelling is identified with explanations in which, not the thunder, but the turning, shifting, or whirling winds are the main feature. This is emphasized in the variants turnadotournado.

The suggestions from Twitter:

καρχαριοτυφῶν: from   [καρχαρίας “shark” + τυφῶν “tornado”] by @AntieDiaphanus

καρχαρίανεμοστρόβιλος: “shark-rain-gyre” from @didaclopez

κηταιγίδα: pun on “sea monster” (κῆτος) and storm (καταιγίς) from @KirkdaleBooks cf. κηταιγίδα (loved by @giovanni_lido)

καρχαρίομβρος: “shark-rain” from @nanocyborgasm

καρχαριοστρόβιλος: “shark-gyre” from @peneloPa

τερατολαῖλαψ: “monster=-omen hurricane” from @ohflanders

καρχαριηριώλη: “shark-air-destruction” from @deadfulprof

καρχαριάνεμος “shark-wind” from @jatrius

Κετρόβιλος: “sea-monster gyre” from @didaclopez

καρχαροδίνη: “shark-whorl” from @equiprimordial


Image result for ancient greek shark

My thought process:

I wanted Ancient Greek, so the problem is there is no word for “shark” according to Woodhouse’s Greek English dictionary. In Oppian’s Halieutika, we find a “fox-shark” (ἀλωπεκίαι, 1.380; cf. Ananius fr. 5.5: κἀλωπέκων) and, possibly, “the genus shark” in Aristotle’s On Breathing (τὸ τῶν καλουμένων σελαχῶν γένος, 476a) while Aelian prefers Ὁ γαλεὸς (On Animals, 2.55).

Of course, we need to go to Greek comedy if we want fish names: Platon the Comic gives us καρχαρίαν (fr. 189.14) while Cratinus, according to Athenaeus, gives us κύων (fr. 171.50), Eupolis provides σελάχιον (πρίω μοι σελάχιον, fr 1.: “buy some shark for me!”). I am going to leave aside the metaphorical transfer names (“dog” and “shark”) and focus just on the fish-words.

Here’s the LSJ on this:

σέλαχος, ὁ: “of all cartilaginous fishes” including “sharks”

καρχαρίας, ὁ: “a kind of shark” named so because of its “sharp” teeth (κάρχαρος means “sharp”).

Obviously, no one wants to use σέλαχος. So, the better suggestions should be from καρχαρίας.  Someone suggested a κητ- compound, which I find especially attractive since κῆτος is already productive in compounds (e.g. κητόδορπος (fish-food) κητοτρόφος (sea-monster nourishing), κητοφάγος (sea-monster eating), κητοφόνος (sea monster slaying). The reason I am leaning this way is because SHARK in American films and culture is a figure of respect and horror, not something you eat. IT EATS YOU. So, Greek κῆτος, while not a shark, seems more apt for the EXTREME nature of this gyronic KILLING MACHINE.

Woodhouse suggests for English “tornado”: χείμων, θύελλα, τυφώς. For hurricane: the same, but with πρηστήρ coming sooner. The blander “storm” gets these, plus τρικυμία, φυσήματα, κλύδων and νιφάς. It does not provide what I think is the best suggestion, λαῖλαψ, which I am probably particular to because it is rather archaic. I also love the Suda’s definition “rain with wind. And darkness” (Λαῖλαψ: μετ’ ἀνέμων ὄμβρος, καὶ σκότος). Hescyhius also glosses it as “a storm, a turning of wind with rain” (καταιγίς, ἀνέμου συστροφὴ μετὰ ὑετοῦ).

Some further suggestions

κητολαῖλαψ: “sea-monster hurricane”

κητοχειμών: “sea-monster storm”

καρχαριοτυφών: “shark-typhoon”

κητοτυφών: “sea-monster typhoon”

καρχαριολαῖλαψ: “sea-monster hurricane”

Palaiophron suggested ἕλιξ κητέων, which is pretty rad. But I would like to turn that bad-boy around and get κητο-ελιξ or perhaps κητόλελιξ or even καρχαριόλελιξ.


Side-note 1: One friend said this post would be really popular. I said maybe, but what people really like are posts about feces, middle-fingers, puking and masturbation.

Side-note 2: Another friend said that the compound should have some Greek compound of “turn” in it. I failed him.

Side-note 3: Another friend, in discovering that there were 5 Sharknado films, texted me: “What!? Where have I been? In such a world, “President Trump” should have come as no surprise.”

Side-note 4: My son who is 5 just walked by and saw the promo-picture for “Sharknado 5” and said “giant sharks on land and in the air? That. Is. A. Mazing.”

Postscript: There were some Latin suggestions too

Post-Post Script: There was a late-breaking addition that is worthy of note:

5 thoughts on “How to Say “Sharknado” in Ancient Greek: A Linguistic Choose-Your-Own Adventure

  1. This may be putting too fine a point on it, but I realize that the problem with my ἕλιξ κητέων is that the Sharknado is not, strictly speaking, a tornado OF sharks, but rather, a tornado carrying sharks. That is to say, the sharks may not be a fundamental or elemental constituent part of the ἕλιξ.

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