How typhoons, hurricanes and cyclones differ (2 are named for monsters)

Hurricane Alex is starting to dwindle, yet it is currently drenching Northern Mexico and causing serious damage.  Other storms will turn into hurricanes before we know it, potentially causing catastrophes and very likely pushing the toxic petroleum goo in the Gulf of Mexico deeper and further into the ocean.

Are hurricanes, cyclones and typhoons distinct meteorological phenomena or just different names for the same horrible type of storm?

The easiest explanation begins with cyclones. This is the clearest and most precise definition: “a large-scale, atmospheric wind-and-pressure system characterized by low pressure at its center and by circular wind motion.” And here’s the inevitable bizarre aspect: cyclones spin “counterclockwise in the Northern Hemisphere, clockwise in the Southern Hemisphere.” For more information on the physics involved, check out anticyclones.

When you get a tropical cyclone that turns violent, the weird word blender starts spinning too. In Australia, it’s called a willy-willy. In the U.S., it’s a hurricane, and in the Southern Pacific, a typhoon.

The naming process for tropical storms is fascinating and way too complex to address here, but this article provides a good explanation. Instead, follow us into the tempestuous etymology of hurricane and typhoon.

Hurricane travels a convoluted road through the Spanish furacão, back to the Mayan god Huracan, a deity of storms and fire.

Typhoon makes the etymology of hurricane seem like a short, straight road. Two separate but similar-sounding words, the Greek typhon and the Chinese taaîfung, were gradually squished together to form the current typhoon. Typhon is a word with the etymological equivalent of frequent flier miles: it made its way into Urdu, Arabic, and various European languages. It’s easy to see why: Typhon was a semi-divine monster in Greek mythology that was the personification of storms, and the father of all monsters, including  the Sphinx (like the Egyptian statue,) Cerberus (the three-headed dog,) and the Nemean Lion (a super lion that Hercules had to kill.)

As if a hurricane isn’t scary enough.


  1. wolf tamer and iron miner -  March 6, 2014 - 4:48 am

    @Ben Curtis:
    What Me, ASH, AJS, Cheerio, & I (wolf tamer and iron miner) mean by saying that God controls the weather is that He controls the conditions which cause the weather. He uses even destructive weather such as hurricanes for good – you can find His hand in everything if you look closely! :)

    Anyway, back on topic, it makes since that Typhon had his name in “typhoon” since he was, as the article says, the personification of storms in Greek mythology. In fact, in the Percy Jackson series, mortals believed he was a giant, immensely destructive storm system.

    Is the root of “cyclone” “Cyclops,” the giant one-eyed monsters from Greek mythology which were usually the children of Poseidon, god of the sea, and various nymphs?

  2. Elli -  July 19, 2013 - 4:03 pm

    I just realized how long ago these comments were put on!
    I feel LIke you guys are so ancient.

  3. Elli -  July 19, 2013 - 3:58 pm


  4. Anupam Roy Chowdhury -  September 9, 2010 - 10:21 am


    I think ‘Typhoon’ came from Chinese ‘Tai’+'Fung’.

    ‘Tai’ means great, in Chinese it means somewhat superlative to English ‘great’.
    ‘Fung’ means air or wind, it is onomatopoeic word in Chinese. Chinese dictionary is full of onomatopoeic words- ‘Miau’ means Cat etc.

    So Typhoon or Tai+Fung means great or very strong wind.


  5. John Stufflet -  September 2, 2010 - 8:55 am

    Mismatch, a tornado is always smaller in size than a hurricane and it is a windstorm with higher velocity winds. Hurricanes are intense rainstorms with high winds that cover up to a 400 mile square mile area. tornadoes are rarely over a mile in width and usually are spin offs of rainstorms. A tornado can travel over water and when it makes contact it is called a waterspout. Do we have a meteorologist out there that can verify this? And please no civil rights crazies.. Go to Glen Beck’s website.

  6. Ebejer -  August 30, 2010 - 8:18 pm

    furacao isnt a spanish word, its portuguese.
    sorry all, don’t have the accent on my keyboard for above the second a

  7. Hetty -  August 30, 2010 - 1:14 pm

    I agree with Ben.

    Regardless what we believe religiously, a public forum which is not originally discussing a religious issue should not be turned into a soapbox for religious zealots. It’s true there is freedom of speech and freedom of religion, but not everyone shares the same religion or religious views so it is considered bad taste to come out and discuss religion and politics in a general and/or public conversation.

  8. Mr. X -  July 7, 2010 - 11:26 pm

    @ mismatch
    are you serious? don’t you know what a tornado is?

  9. Mr. X -  July 6, 2010 - 8:39 pm

    @ mich: I Agree….NOT…dictionary.com is always right!

  10. Cheerio -  July 6, 2010 - 4:37 am

    Hey you guys… I reckon you shouldn’t all pull other people spelling and grammer to bits.. e.g. wILLIam’s!! I reckon that if you all looked a little closer at some of the stuff you write… you will also find that you make mistakes!! haha… scuse my laugh but I think it’s funny!!
    As to the fact that some of you reckon that we should not put anything about The Creator… I reckon your conscience’s must be pricking you because you know that you are wrong! I reckon that you should get yourselves a Bible and read it!


  11. mich -  July 5, 2010 - 3:15 pm

    hey, a “willy willy” in Australia is a dust storm not a violent cyclone. If you can’t get that fact straight how can we believe the rest. A tropical cyclone, regardless of intensity, is still a tropical cyclone. Just the categories change. When it is no longer a threat with high winds, it is downgraded to a rain depression, which can still cause horrific flooding and damage.

  12. Ben Curtis -  July 5, 2010 - 8:44 am

    @C’mon: I’m not sure where you get the second two of your list of freedoms, but the first two are not being attacked here. People will not be arrested for worshipping as they please. People will not be arrested for saying what they please.

    But there are certain things that are rude. You do not tell a proud mother that her baby is ugly, for example, even though you are free to do so. You also should not hijack a nice conversation about something that we all came here to read, in order to twist the topic into something that many of the readers don’t care to read. That rudeness devalues the work of the Hot Word blog, and turns its audience away from being interested to not.

    Do you think that it’s good to be rude to your host? Is that the society you really want to promote?

  13. C'mon -  July 5, 2010 - 6:39 am

    Remember the 4 freedoms??

    - Freedom of speech
    - Freedom of worship
    - Freedom from want
    - Freedom from fear

    Leave beleivers alone.

  14. Furacão me, it’s breezy -  July 4, 2010 - 2:31 am

    [...] that two of them should take their names from mythology, but what did make me stop was the way that the comments flipped straight to the pretty basic theological statement — “God Controls the [...]

  15. WALNUT -  July 2, 2010 - 11:57 pm


  16. isabel mcp -  July 2, 2010 - 1:17 pm

    “Furacão” is a Portuguese – not Spanish – word (as Tommy B mentioned above). Although the Portuguese were out and about mapping out the world a good deal of centuries ago (as were the Spaniards), they (‘we’) wouldn’t have left a legacy such as the ‘hurricane’ word, as none of those phenomena were visible in old Europe, the only possibility being to have borrowed it from tupi, guarani or another Indigenous tribe/language from the Amazon or who knows from a more far-east origin. But according to Aurélio dictionary of Portuguese, one of the most reliable ones in Portugal and Brazil, “hurricane” stems from taino ‘hurakán’ (a language from an extinct tribe in the Antilles), which the Castillian speakers imported back to what is now Spain as ‘huracán’, and only after that did the Portuguese take the word as ‘furacão’.

  17. Shorty -  July 2, 2010 - 9:49 am

    I have lived in Australia all my life; more than half of it in Darwin. I agree with Bryan, and The GomSof, but not quite with Gus Barber.
    Cyclones are large destructive storms which form over the sea, and which might affect coastal areas. Typically in northern Australia, they bring rain to an area of upto 1000km from the “eye”. My understanding is that they are the southern equivalent of what the Americans call a hurricane.
    Willy-willies form over land, in warm weather. They are much smaller, and they vary in size. When travelling on the Stuart or Barkly Highways in the N.T., it is common to see multiple willy-willies simultaneously. I have counted six at once. These are columns of moving dust, upto 100m high, and visible from several kilometres. The eye of a willy-willy moves across the ground. My understanding is that our willy-willy is the equivalent of a tornado, but tornados seem to be much more destructive. I can only recall one incident in my liftime (and that in the last year or so, in N.S.W. I think) where a willy-willy resulted in loss of life.
    Where I disagree with Gus Barber is that I would say that the phrase “dust devil” is used to describe a very tiny type of willy-willy. I have only seen them on paved areas (but I’m not asserting that that is the only place that they may be found). Those I have seen have been a metre or so high, and are apparent because they pick up a few fallen leaves and a little dust.

  18. bewawolf19 -  July 2, 2010 - 9:15 am

    by the way we have some athiest blogging and it is worse then when a athiest was in my communion class

  19. Adam -  July 2, 2010 - 9:11 am

    Wait, I didn’t see the part of the article that talks about who controls the weather. I only saw the etymological/linguistic stuff. And, for the record, I control the weather. At least I think do. If it’s not me, it’s definitely satan.

  20. bewawolf19 -  July 2, 2010 - 9:09 am

    well that was a terrible explanation of the nemean lion. The nemean lion was a lion who’s skin was invincible. Hercules killed it by stapping it in either the eye or mouth ( thier is defferent versions ). also you forgot to add the hydra and some others.

  21. Nathan -  July 2, 2010 - 8:56 am

    @Lucy: I totally agree.
    @wiLLiam: For word people, this is relevant, for how we understand words affects how we understand the things in our lives, the things we come to care about and are given, and yes, for the religious nuts, the ways that our dieties tell us things.

    @ assorted religious nuts: I don’t think God controls the weather. I think He created a system for weather to take place naturally in a suitable environment. That’s it. Science suspects that we probably have much more to do with the weather than God, but in the early days when we didn’t understand something, we attributed it to our gods. Believe it or not, that has happened in our “modern” religions too and it has shaped our theologies.

    Mind you, that does not make us wrong, it just makes us human.

  22. Ben Curtis -  July 2, 2010 - 8:56 am

    About tornados…

    Hurricanes are the size of a US state. Tornados are the size of a city block. Hurricanes are formed by warm water evaporating over a large area (a sea), and the resulting lighter air rising; the low pressure formed from this pulls winds inward which start them turning due to the Coriolis effect. Tornados occur when warm thunderstorms pass over flat land, causing small pockets of air to rapidly rise and as the air rushes in to fill the void it spins (Coriolis again) and creates a low-pressure vortex sustained by circling wind. Dust devils are tornados (typically much smaller) that are created by sun-warmed air rising, rather than moist air rising.

  23. Ben Curtis -  July 2, 2010 - 8:44 am

    @Me, @ASH, @AJS, @Cheerio: Independent of what this short and fun article was about (hint: words), you all agree that “God controls the weather.” However, anyone who spends 30 minutes or more studying weather will agree that the weather is not controlled at all, but a simple result of having a warm sun and a wet atmosphere. So if weather is not controlled, are you trying to convince us that God does nothing? That He’s not doing his job?

    Seems a bit preposterous.

    This is a fun article exploring word linkages, etymologies, and topical relevance. When you treat it as a public forum for your proselytizing, you make the experience less enjoyable for those who don’t believe as you do (e.g., those who believe God has better things to do than to play Zeus). In making it less enjoyable, you are not respecting your host well. Everyone has a right to be rude, but is that the society you want to live in?

  24. MGCNoone -  July 2, 2010 - 8:12 am

    God doesn’t control the weather, you morons, because there is no god. What does your intangible father figure have to do with naming natural disasters anyway?

  25. geocha -  July 2, 2010 - 8:02 am

    @wILLIam –

    The relevance to our lives is in knowing what words mean. Judging by your poor spelling and grammar skills, your question answers itself.

    @A Pluto Native –

    Oh, great, someone who thinks he’s from another planet.

  26. Ronin -  July 2, 2010 - 7:27 am

    Yes, Pluto Native, because you were injured by their silliness. You should get a lawyer and sue them. Or you could take the plank out of your own eye, and not be an anti-religious nut-case.

    Back on topic: @mismatch, I think the distinction is that a tornado travels over land and a hurricane travels over the ocean, and that typhoon and cyclone are just regional names for a hurricane.

  27. Gus Barber -  July 2, 2010 - 6:27 am

    A cyclone is not called a willy – willy in australia. A willy – willy is like a dust devil or mini tornado. Get them every day at work in the summer…

  28. bubba bob -  July 2, 2010 - 6:03 am

    @Me & Ash
    I thought the article was about NAMING the weather. I, personally, think that the ‘BIG GUY’ has more important stuff on his COSMIC COMPUTER to deal with. (DANG!, I hit that ‘SMITE’ button again!!) Now about Bubba’s hemmoroids…..

  29. David -  July 2, 2010 - 5:34 am

    Less superstition and more understanding would go a long way to inmproving the human condition from weather awareness and safety, to geopolitical strife, how we treat our neighboras and our own children. To quote a wise old gentleman, “I would rather understand one cause than be King of Persia.”– Democritus 6th Century BCE

  30. pottluk -  July 2, 2010 - 5:31 am

    Last year I recorded some ‘crop circles’. Cyclones?? and what is the connection (there must be something) between ‘cyclone’ and ‘Cyclops’?

  31. Ming -  July 2, 2010 - 3:52 am

    they are three forms of gases of pissy mother earth. Don’t think god controls anything. people claim their diety made a difference in a monday-morning-quarterback fashion.

  32. Alan Turner -  July 2, 2010 - 2:54 am

    If any one should be interested in this blog it is wILLIam. He cannot spell or punctuate and grammar is a word he could look up to his own advantage. You have to retiring age and above to spell without thinking or looking up in the dictionary.


  33. john.doe -  July 2, 2010 - 2:33 am

    Oh, good. 1st Ammendment rights exercised. Just what this site needs. Go back to Pluto…

  34. The GomSof -  July 2, 2010 - 12:04 am

    Never in my life have I heard a cyclone called a willy-willy in Australia (where I was born and bred and have lived for the last 62 years). A willy-willy is a dust whirlwind (therefore usually in the outback) – there is no water involved at all. A whirlwind over water we call a “waterspout”. A depression which develops into a swirling mass of wind and clouds and torrential rain we call a cyclone.

  35. Bryan -  July 2, 2010 - 12:01 am

    I beg to differ regarding the terminology for a “Cyclone” in Australia. We always call a tropical storm (same a Hurricane, Typhoon) a Cyclone!

    I live in Darwin where in 1974 Cyclone Tracy demolished Darwin (early Christmas morning!!), and necessitated the evacuation of more than half the population to southern populations. It amounted to about 40,000 people being airlifted from the isolated city of the north, and Darwin was rebuilt again (it was also bombed in WWII by Japanese forces, and felt the rath of more bombs than Pearl Harbour!). The cyclone killed about 60 or 70 people from memory.

    Willy-Willy’s are (as I’ve always known in my 40 years being an Aussie) essentially a twister or tornado. Usually not as common or intense in Australia (also a sparse population means cyclones and willy-willys travel through unpopulated regions unknown, which is typical of a country as big as the US, though only 21 Million population living on the coast).

    I hope this is enlightening and clears the air with terminology from an Aussies perspective.


  36. Tommy B. -  July 2, 2010 - 12:01 am

    I believe the Portuguese word furacão became the Spanish huracán, or that they share a common root.

  37. michelle -  July 2, 2010 - 12:00 am

    And here i thought hurricanes, typhoons etc. were all different things…

  38. Benjy -  July 1, 2010 - 10:44 pm

    At least the previous blogartist got his name right. Love it or leave it, but God made nature. Just don’t leave it too long or you could end up alone in a rather unearthly fire for eternity.

  39. marda -  July 1, 2010 - 10:29 pm

    As we’ve all said at some stage in these blogs, believing in God does not make you a religious nut case.
    Cheer up buddy, it may not be what this site needs but you sure sound like you need some antidepressants!!!!

    Good Blog, cheers!

  40. whooo -  July 1, 2010 - 10:00 pm

    I wonder what it would be like to be caught in a hurricane why you were in a plane…Scary!!!

  41. A Pluto Native -  July 1, 2010 - 9:18 pm

    Oh, good. Religious nut-cases. Just what this site needs.

  42. divya -  July 1, 2010 - 9:12 pm

    whatz in a name?
    i hate all of them

  43. lucy -  July 1, 2010 - 8:44 pm

    Hate for anyone to get hurt but I am crazy for a good storm. Love them in movies and in life. Grew up on the water, the waves were wonderful. Even saw water tornadoes. They would sweep across the water surface getting larger as it whirled. Yes, God made so much beauty.

  44. wILLIam -  July 1, 2010 - 7:43 pm

    hey.. dont you think all this —– is totally inrelivant to our lives? Dont you think we might me getting no where… like why cant we do some thing more interesting? Does anyone really wont to know why Hurricane Alex is starting to dwindle, yet it is currently drenching Northern Mexico and causing serious damage??? can some people fin it intesting??? i say.. good on to people like AJS, CHEERIO, ASH and FOOP DUSH.. who are actually tring to make these blogs intesting. Does anyone agree?

  45. mismatch -  July 1, 2010 - 7:18 pm

    whats a tornado then????

  46. AJS -  July 1, 2010 - 6:52 pm


    Yeah! i luv summer and going to the beach…

  47. Cheerio -  July 1, 2010 - 6:45 pm

    @Me & ASH
    I Agree with both of you but….. I still hate winter and bad weather!!

  48. Flying Cat Fish -  July 1, 2010 - 6:35 pm

    I think if was there (in a Willy), i would have trouble flying…

  49. AJS -  July 1, 2010 - 6:31 pm


    I agree….

  50. AJS -  July 1, 2010 - 6:22 pm

    So what should we call them?? (willy-willy, hurricane, typhoon or a ???)

  51. ASH -  July 1, 2010 - 6:17 pm

    God Controls the weather.

  52. Foop Dush -  July 1, 2010 - 6:13 pm

    Why is it called Hot Word??

    there lots of words as far i can see…

  53. Me -  July 1, 2010 - 6:13 pm

    God Controls the weather!


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