“I remember this mountain. Shaped like a cone, smoke coming out from the top and molten rock flowing down the side. Can’t think of the name – v-something – hold on – no, lost it.” This sounds implausible. Names of uncommon things can easily be forgotten; we have all done it. But not volcano! Most people have never seen one in real life, and still a burning mountain is recognized world-wide: every child immediately shouts out ‘volcano!’ The words ‘eruption’ and ‘lava’ equally roll of the tongue. Names for some of the details can get vague. ‘Ash’ is easy, but ‘pyroclastics’ is less commonly known and ‘tephra’ is a mystery to many. But why is this word ‘volcano’ such common knowledge? What other words are used around the world, and how did ‘volcano’ become the established word?
Volcanoes rank with dinosaurs in a child’s imagination. Both are huge and scary things, overwhelmingly impressive but totally safe – after all, they don’t really exist, unlike lions or spiders. It is like the story of the gruffalo – a child can feel safe in the shadow of something big and (and that is very important) unreal. Books on science for children will always include volcanoes. You can buy a volcano kit in the toy shop: they look nothing like the real thing but at least they make a big mess, invariably a hit with any child. It must be a shock to find out that, unlike dinosaurs, volcanoes actually exist. But with all this publicity at such an impressionable age, is it a surprise that everyone can recognize a volcano for what it is, and name it?
This post discusses some of the many different words used for ‘volcano’. Many words will be missing, because of limited (severely limited) knowledge on my part, because no on-line translation was available, of just because not everything could be included. Please pass on corrections and/or additions through the comment box: the readers will greatly value this. If you are new to VC commenting, your first comment will normally require approval by an admin and it may take some time (hours) for it to appear. After that, comments should appear without delay.
The word ‘volcano’ has an ancient origin. England has no experience with volcanoes and English thus had to borrow its word. It chose an ancient concept. The story of the word begins on Crete. First among the pantheon of Minoan gods was the chief, Velchanos. It may have been the origin of Zeus, the king of the Greek gods. Tradition has it that Zeus was raised on Crete. And Velchanos left an impression, because he was also adopted by the early Romans. A temple to Vulcanus in Rome dates from several centuries BC, and in Roman mythology it is said to have been built shortly after the founding of Rome, in the 8th century BC.
But unlike Velchanos, Vulcanus failed to get the top job of CEO of the Roman gods. He was considered important (as shown by the early date of this temple), but the top job went to Jupiter. As Jupiter was an incarnation of Zeus, one could argue that Velchanos was usurped by his own clone. Game of Thrones is nothing compared to Life of the Gods. The Romans instead identified Vulcanus with the Greek god Hephaestus, the god of the metal workers. In the iron age, metal workers had control of fire, and they would have been give the kind of reference -but perhaps not respect- which is nowadays given to computer
geeks experts. Vulcanus was given an esteemed role: Hephaestus was the son of Jupiter and married to Venus. (This made Vulcanus the son of his own clone, which might be a step too far for Game of Thrones or even Midsomer Murders.) As blacksmith, Hephaestus’ smithy was considered to be under Mount Etna. The frequent eruptions of Etna were the evidence of his underground work!
The Greeks had identified a second smithy of Hephaestus: an island just north of Sicily which they called Therassía. Perhaps this identification was because of the numerous fumaroles, behaving as chimneys of an underground smithy. But although the island is highly volcanic, actual eruptions on Therassia are infrequent, centuries apart. It was no competition for the frequent fires of Etna. When the Romans decided to identify Vulcanus with Hephaestus, god of fire, the island also had to change name, and in Latin the island became known as Vulcano. Eventually, the name of the island would become the generic term for an erupting mountain. Etna or Stromboli would have been much more obvious choices for the type specimen, but Vulcano it was.
The ancient greeks did use the word ‘etna’ for volcano. It would have made complete sense if this had become our generic word for ‘volcano’. But no.
When was the word ‘volcano’ first used as a generic expression to describe an erupting mountain? That is not easy to find out! If a reader of this post knows more, please let us know. A look through various old documents showed that one Asciane Filomarino used the word in 1797, when describing the potential use of his newly invented seismograph to give advance warnings of eruption. In his writing it is used as a verb rather than a noun, synonym of ‘eruption’, but clearly at that time the word was in common use. However, far older work is available. Ambrogio Leono wrote a description of the 1500 eruption of Vesuvius, which was published in 1514. He wrote ‘When the eruptive violence ended, covering everything with material thrown out by the volcano, then it rained reddish ashes very abundantly’. Here he calls Vesuvius ‘the volcano’.
I have been unable to find an older use of the word. The shift in meaning from an actual island to a violent eruption can only have happened through an actual eruption on Vulcano. There was one on Feb 4, 1444, when rocks were thrown a distance of 10 kilometer. That sounds impressive enough to perhaps have done the trick.
Kept in translation
The list below shows the various words used in European languages for volcano. A large number of the languages took their word directly from Italian. These include all the major and most of the minor languages in Europe. But there are a few exceptions. Iceland and Greece have their own words for volcano. So do Basque and Finnish, but Hungarian uses the Latin-derived word in spite of its relation to Finnish.
Update 1: VC reader Monika Landy-Gyebnar pointed out that Hungarian does have its own word for volcano, tűzhányó, in addition to the loan word vulkán. The list has been updated to reflect this.
Update 2: VC reader Bjarki kindly gave us the Faroese word for volcano, gosfjall, meaning gushing (or geysering) mountain.
Update 3: VC reader Edward Lane kindly translated the Welsh for us, explaining that llosg means burning
and mynydd comes from fynydd meaning mountain. Trust the Welsh to get the details right with a word you could sing.
The first thing to note is that the three European countries which have historically active volcanoes all have their own word: Iceland, Italy, and Greece (where Greece included Sicily at one time, giving their language access to a far more active volcano than their own). Italy gave us volcano, Greece uses efaisteio, and Iceland has eldfjall. The last word is particularly illuminating: eldfjall is a combination of eldur, meaning fire, and fjall, meaning mountain. It gives us a vivid impression what a volcano is all about – a burning mountain! In contrast, volcano relates to smoke rising from the ground, i.e. a concealed fire. This carries the image of a smoking mountain, or a field of fumaroles. Where Etna is impulsive, throwing rocks and firebombs around, Vulcano is a more subdued volcano. It is not Iceland. We will come across this difference between fire mountain and smoking mountain in other places.
The other European countries had to borrow their word for volcano, for lack of a volcano of their own. It is not clear where Basque (a far older language than Latin) got its word from, and the same is true for Finnish. Apart from these two, the countries who do not have their own volcano, adopted the Italian word. Here is the promised list of European words for volcano:
Faroese gosfjall (vulkan is also used)
Greek ηφαίστειο (efaisteio)
Hungarian tűzhányó (vulkán is also used)
Near Eastern languages
If we go the Near East, different words are found. Farsi, also known as Persian, is an Indo-European language, spoken in Iran and extending into Central Asia, which has over 100 million speakers. It shares much of its grammar with European languages, but the split is ancient and occurred well before the Greeks discovered their volcanoes. Thus the word for volcano differs between the two. The Farsi word for volcano is ateshefshan. The Urdu language uses the same word. Georgian, a language from the kartvelian group of languages found in the Caucasus region, has adopted the European word, vulkʼanis.
Semitic languages originated in the Near East and Ethiopia, and are now widespread over Asia and Northern Africa, with over 300 million speakers. Maltan is the only European semitic language. Arabic is the most widely spoken semitic language: its word for volcano is ’berkan’ sufficiently close to ‘vulcan’ that it may be related to it. Semitic languages are also spoken in large parts of Ethiopia. Amharic is the nation’s working language; it is the second largest semitic language in the world in terms of number of speakers. As one may expect, in view of Ethiopia’s extensive volcanic activity, it has its own word for volcano. But this raises a problem, as the word appears unintelligible to us: እሳተ ገሞራ. Good luck with that!
In fact we already came across this problem but I ignored it. Neither Farsi nor Arabic, nor Georgian, use our roman characters. I wrote their words using standard so-called romanization, representing the original character with the roman letter which is closest in sound. But for Amharic, there isn’t a single and generally accepted way to do this, as the sounds differ too much. Characters from other languages, or phonetic symbols, may be used. The Amharic above is transcribed as ʾəsatä gämora, which is itself not too helpful! Google translate it into ‘stealthy goma’. Goma is an ancient region in the southwest of the country, with a fair number of rift volcanoes but where eruptions are not that frequent. I don’t know whether there is any specific meaning to this Amharic word! Something may have been lost in Google translation. In the list below, I give both the scripted form of the word (especially the Georgian script is a work of beauty), and the romanized form.
Ethiopia is in fact a veritable tower of Babylon. There are many different languages, belonging to three different language families, one of which is semitic. The most famous volcano in Ethiopia is Erta Ale (also transcribed as Irta’ale). Its location is in the Afar region, the triple point where the Rift Valley meets the Red Sea. Here, a cushitic (non-semitic) language is spoken, Qarafaf. Cushitic languages are spoken in Somalia, Djibouti, and Ethiopia. In the Qarafaf language, the name of this perpetually active volcano means ‘smoking mountain’.
Near-Eastern words for volcano:
Farsi (Persian) آتشفشان (ateshefshan)
Urdu آتش فشاں (aatish fishan)
Georgian ვულკანის (vulkʼanis)
Arabic بركان (berkan)
Amharic እሳተ ገሞራ (ʾəsatä gämora)
The language diversity in Africa is enormous, with over 2000 languages in 6 language families. The ones spoken in the northeast of Africa have already been mentioned, as part of the Near-Eastern languages. The Nilo-Sahara language family covers the volcanoes of East Africa. The Maasai language belongs to this family, and they live around the main volcanoes of Tanzania. The name Ol Doinyo Lengai is a Maasai word for “the mount of god”. I have not found out whether there is a generic word for volcano in Maasai. Swahili is the national language in this region, and is the lingua franca in this area. It is widely spoken but is the first language of few. Its word for volcano is clearly borrowed from English: it is volkano. Swahili belongs to the Bantu language family, which covers most of sub-saharan Africa.
Yoruba, a Niger–Congo language spoken in Nigeria, reportedly has ‘atupa eefin’ as word for volcano. ‘Eefin’ means ‘smoke’, and ‘atupa’ is ‘ash’. It is one of the words for volcano which has the smoke or fire, but it lacks the bit about a mountain.
A few African words for volcano:
Yoruba atupa eefin
Sesotho seretse se chesang (literally: hot springs)
Japanese and Chinese have the same written name for ‘volcano’: 火山. It seems more likely that this word is Japanese by origin, as Japan has a plurality of erupting volcanoes and China only has one. The first character, not surprisingly, stands for ‘fire’, and you can guess that the second character means ‘mountain’ (the shape of the symbol gives a hint). So we end up with a fairly standard name for volcano! In Indonesia, ‘gunung’ means ‘mountain’. One of its most famous active volcanoes is Gunung Merapi: ‘Merapi’ means ‘fire’. The generic Indonesian name for volcano, Gunung berapi, translates as ‘furious (or fiery) mountain’.
East Asian words for volcano:
Chinese 火山 (huoshan)
Japanese 火山 (kazan) (‘fire mountain’)
Indonesian gunung berapi (‘fiery mountain’)
Javanese gunung geni
Malay gunung berapi
Vietnamese núi lửa
The Pacific begins with the Philippines, the area from which Polynesia was settled. It is both highly volcanic and highly diverse. There are as many as 180 different languages spoken in the Philippines. One of those, the Tagalog language spoken in the area around Manila, was elevated to national language, in conjunction with English. You might expect an interesting word to be used for volcano! Indeed it is. The word is ‘bulkang’. Mount Mayon is Bulkang Mayon in filipino (as the Tagalog language is now known). The word for ‘mountain’ is bundok, and as Pinatubo was not recognized as volcanic when the names were handed out, it’s proper name is Bundok Pinatubo. One may wonder whether ‘bulkang’ is related to the Arabic word for volcano. I don’t know, but there has been some influence from Arabic in the southern parts of the Philippines, so it is not completely excluded.
Polynesia is perhaps the most volcanic region in the world. Every island in the deep Pacific -and there are many- is volcanic in origin. People spread rapidly from Taiwan via the Philippines, once deep-sea voyages were mastered, and various populations are closely related in spite of being completely isolated. The last major island to fall to the human tide was New Zealand.
The most famous word in the region for volcano comes from Hawaii: Pele, the lady from Kilauea. Tourism is a major reason for Pele’s popularity. Because the Polynesian languages are young and closely related, one may expect that the word for volcano is similar across the Pacific. But it isn’t. The Maori call it puia, and the Samoans say mauga mu, literally mountain firestorm. From this diversity, it seems plausible that the proto-polynesian language did not have a word for volcano. The tide is though to have started from Taiwan, spreading via the Philippines and New Guinea to the ocean. The Philippines are highly volcanic, but Taiwan isn’t. So it makes sense to place the origins of the language there. This argument is highly speculative, but it fits with the genetic evidence that the future Polynesians spread very quickly and spend only a few hundred years in the coastal regions of south-east Asia before taking sail, taking their languages with them. There was little interaction or mixing with the local populations.
Pacific words for volcano:
Samoa mauga mu
Bislami (Vanuatu) volkeno
Vanuatua is among the most volcanic places in the world. Here is world-famous Mount Yasur, among a host of other active volcanoes. So what is the local word for volcano? It is volkeno! Now this is not as strange as it may seem. Vanuatua owns almost 100 languages, and for its official language it used a recently developed pidgin language: Bislama. Pidgin languages evolved in response to international trade, and often had a lot of influence from English. Bislama even uses the indo-european word for water, Wota – you would expect an island empire in the middle of the Pacific Ocean to have its own word! And to make things worse, they use the same word ‘wota’ for lava! (This confusion is not limited to lava. The Russian word ‘wodka’ has the same root and means ‘a little water’..)
The original languages of the Americas have of course been largely displaced by European imports, and there is a lack of written records. But the past survives in the names of the mountains.
The most impressive volcano in the northern Americas is Popocatépetl. And indeed, this follows the pattern we have seen before: in the Aztec words, it means ‘smoky mountain’. (Wikipedia explains that it derives from the Nahuatl words popōca, meaning ‘it smokes‘ and tepētl, meaning (hold it…) ‘mountain‘.) Legend has it that the Aztec emperor Moctezuma once send his warriors to discover the source of the smoke. The second large volcano in this region is Iztaccihuatl, but this one is extinct and perhaps this is reflected in the name which means ‘sleeping lady’.
Language evolution: an accidental history
This post has barely scratched the surface. There are 7099 documented languages in the world! This post can only mention a few of these. And even in Europe, where the languages and their history are so well documented, and where we can investigate the origin of a word, it is not always clear when and how it came into common use. Elsewhere, it is so much harder to know what happened. Languages evolve. Sounds can change rapidly: in the 30 years that I have been visiting Australia, I have seen the typical Australian accent become much more pronounced, perhaps due to feedback from television programs. New words are adopted every year: some survive, some don’t. Who could have predicted 25 years ago what ‘the web’ would come to mean? And even entirely new languages can evolve, often due to migration or trading. Where a new lingua franca develops, the European word ‘volcano’ may become adopted in regions which you would have expected to have their own words. Perhaps such a language shift is happening right now. I recently asked my children when the word ‘good’ had changed meaning. They had no clue. But when they say ‘I am good’, it means something entirely different to them than it would have only a few years ago.
Local words for ‘volcano’ are often descriptive, derived from ‘smoky mountain’ or ‘fire mountain’. The word ‘volcano’ is unusual in that respect, as it ultimately has a human rather then a geophysical origin. It envisages a blacksmith at work underground.
But even Europe could so easily have adopted a different word. The most destructive eruption in the Mediterranean history was that of Thera in Greece. This is one of those eruptions that changed history. Nowadays the island (or what is left of it) is called Santorini, a name that dates to the 13th century. The name ‘Thera’ is far older, certainly as old as the 3rd century BC and perhaps as old as the 14th century BC when the name appears in Linear B writings, as qe-ra-si-ja. The ending ‘si-ja’ may indicate the dative. In the writing, the name was in the context of an offering of oil, suggesting ‘qe-ra’ was either a deity or a dangerous person, someone to be feared. There is no indication that the word referred to the volcanic eruption two centuries before, but it became attached to the island.
From there the word evolved. ‘Teras’ came to mean ‘monster’. Our word ‘tera’ comes from it, describing something extremely large. (In fact it has a precise numeric meaning, unlike say ‘gazillion’ which is just hyperbole,) A computer with a performance that is measured in ‘tera-flops’ (don’t ask) is really being compared to Thera, referring to a capability to destroy rather than create. The same is true for your hard disk, which is measured in ‘terabytes’. But the word also entered latin, as ‘terrere’ (fear) and ‘terror’. Even our word ‘tremor’ may be related; it links this indicator of a coming eruption back to a volcanic origin. So a word goes back to its roots. Ig language history had gone slightly different, our word for volcano could well have been ‘terror mountain’.
(And indeed, there is a volcano called Mount Terror. You can find it on Antarctica, next to its more famous sibling Mount Erebus.)
But in the end, the evolution of language is a story of missed opportunities. ‘Etna’ remained a specific volcano, ‘terror’ became mostly used for human eruptions, and vulkanus became the winner of the volcano naming battle, a game worthy of the olympics. You couldn’t have predicted it.