By any other name: the story of the word ‘volcano’

Arenal volcano.

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.

The island of Vulcano. The small island at the front wasn’t there in Roman times. In spite of its name, the island lacks a single, clear volcano.

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.

Update: Shérine France found older usage: “The Arabic scholar al-Idrîsî (1099-1165) in his geographic encyclopedia uses the word borkan for the Karthala at Grande Comore. Albert the Great (1200-1280) in Latin speaks of volcano in “On the corruption of the elements” But it was through the conquistadors that the word volcano entered modern languages in the countryside in Guatemala in 1524 by Pedro de Alvarado (1485-1541).” This means that the 1444 eruption at Vulcano cannot be blamed: the transfer of the name of the island to other erupting mountains happened much earlier.

Kept in translation

European languages

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 fynydd comes from mynydd meaning mountain. Trust the Welsh to get the details right with a word you could sing.
Update 4: VC reader Bjarki donated the Saami word for volcano.

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:

Afrikaans vulkaan
Albanian vullkan
Basque sumendi
Belarusian vulkan
Breton Menez-tan (fire mountain
Bulgarian vulkan
Bosnian vulkan
Catalan volcà
Croatian vulkan
Czech sopka
Danish vulkan
Dutch vulkaan
English volcano
Estonian vulkaan
Faroese gosfjall (vulkan is also used)
Finnish tulivuori
French volcan
Frisian Fulkaan
Galician volcán
German Vulkan
Greek ηφαίστειο (efaisteio)
Hungarian tűzhányó (vulkán is also used)
Icelandic eldfjall
Italian vulcano
Irish bolcán
Kazakh vulkan
Lithuanian vulkanas
Latvian vulkāns
Macedonian vulkan
Maltese vulkan
Norwegian vulkan
Polish wulkan
Portuguese vulcão
Romanian vulcan
Russian vulkan
Serbian vulkan
Saami dollavárri
Slovak vulkán
Slovenian vulkan
Spanish volcán
Swedish vulkan
Turkish volkan
Ukrainian vulkan
Welsh: llosgfynydd

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.

Update: Shérine France passed on her wisdom, and writes: the word ገሞራ (Transliteration gemora) comes from the biblical term Gomorrah city destroyed by a rain of fire. Today it refers to something that erupts.
The word እሳት Refers to fire, flames (Transliteration “isati” Declension እሳት (əsat))

Erte Ale, the 600 meter high volcano with its seemingly ever-lasting lava lake.

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.

From Click on image for full resolution.

A few African words for volcano:

Swahili volkano
Yoruba atupa eefin
Chichewa phiri
Sesotho seretse se chesang (literally: hot springs)

East Asia

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


Languages of the Philippines. Click on the image for full resolution.

An unusual view of Bulkang Mayon.

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:

Filipino bulkang
Maori puia
Hawaii pele
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’.

Update VC reader Rob provided some information on the indigenous terms used in the US Northwest. He writes The Klikitats called Mt. St. Helen Louwala-Clough (Smoking Mountain), nearby living Puyallup tribes called the same mountain Loowitlatkla (Lady of Fire). A native legend tells about a battle between the brothers Wy’East (Mt.Hood) and Pahto (Mt. Adams) arguing fiery about the good looking La-wa-la-clough (Mt. St. Helens). The argue was accompanied with the throwing of glowing rocks.

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. If 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.


83 thoughts on “By any other name: the story of the word ‘volcano’

  1. I wonder if no “universal” word for volcano was ever created because every human settlement near a fiery mountain believed that their particular volcano was unique. As for the Greek word for a volcano, ηφαίστειο and Ήφαιστος are awfully similar.

    PS the language of the natives of central Luzon is Tagalog rather than Talagog.

    • Thanks Spike! The Luzon language name is fixed. The similarity between the two greek names was pointed out in some places. Italian and Greek did end up with very different names, even if there is a common origin. And it is true that in order to have a generic word for volcano, you need access to at least two! Lucky Icelanders.

  2. Has anyone looked at north Pacific languages?

    I used to have nightmares about both volcanic eruptions and tsunamis as a child – was taught in school (1954-66) that there was nothing to worry about in Oregon but that turns out to have been misinformation.

  3. In Hungarian we also have a real Hungarian word for volcano, not only the Latin originated one 🙂 This is “tűzhányó” which literally means fire vomiting 🙂 Both words are used in everyday language, still you’d meet “vulkán” more in scientific texts but only for sounding more scientific as being a Latin word. 🙂 It’s not uncommon in Hugarian to have two absolutely equal words fot the same thing – it also happens to potato just to mention one. I guess it’s for the sake of poets to make them easier to find a proper word for their rhymes. 🙂

    Held for approval by the system. Released with thanks for the patience – admin

    • Thank you! I have updated the list. The real Hungarian word starts the same as the Finnish word: is this the bit that means ‘fire’?

      I am familiar with a language having both an original and a loan word for the same thing. My own language has it too.

  4. “The Maori call it puia, and the Samoans say mauga mu.”

    Suspect a slight deviation has taken place in linguistic history there; the cinder cones of the Auckland volcanic field are referred to locally as ‘maunga’ which simply means ‘mountain’. ‘Puia’ AFAIK also has the meanings of geyser or hot spring, and eruption itself.

    Just checked – yep; a lot of volcanology terms derived from ‘puia’ –

  5. In Faroese it’s “Gosfjall” rough translation would be “erupting mountain”.
    Vulkan(danish form) is somewhat commonly used as well among people

    • Edit: Gosfjall (erupting mountain)for the mountain, and eldgos (fire eruption/eruption of fire)for the actual eruption.

    • Edit2: “Gos” actually means “gush” in English (after looking it up in the dictionary)so it’s “Gushing mountain”, it has the same origin as the word “Geysir” which means “The gusher” from Old Norse geysa “to gush,” from Proto-Germanic *gausjan, suffixed form of PIE *gheus-, extended form of the root *gheu- “to pour.”

      • I find that fascinating! It suggest that the Faroese people were familiar with geysers before they saw working volcanoes. Is there any link between Faroe vikings and southwest Iceland where the geysers are?

        I have added an entry in the table.

        • The Reykjavík area always has been the most populated region, and so the place where most trade etc would have happened. Also Þingvellir isn’t located terrible far from Geysir(aprocs 40km in direct line), so I don’t think it would have been out of the question to assume some Faroese vikings occasionally were present during a Þing as guests or bringers of foreign news, or whatever, and at the same time experienced the wonder of Geysir on a weekend trip or somesuch.

          Also, “eldfjall” is legal tender in Faroese for a volcano, according to the dictionary, I’ve just never heard/read of it actually being used, but it still suggests that it must have been used at some point in time, perhaps indicating a shift in usuage during the ages.
          As “Gýsur/goysur” the word describing an eruption, or gushing of material from whatever source, has been in common use to describe for example draugths in houses(still is), or a leak in a boat where the water is “gushing” in, so I assume it has just taken over at some point, “There’s a mountain that is gushing fire in Iceland”, instead of “There’s a mountain of fire(eldfjall) in Iceland”

          “Eldgos” “fire gush/gushing of fire)the word for an actual eruption are used both in the Faroes and Iceland.

  6. the welsh word llosg means burning
    mynydd (which soft mutates to fynydd) means mountain

    so llosgfynydd means burning mountain

  7. Hurricane Maria (currently cat 4) is going to make a direct hit on the island of Dominica. This island has 9 of the 16 active Caribbean volcanoes and is famous for its boiling lake. My question: What, if any, effect does the low pressure of a big hurricane have on these volcanoes?

    • Little to none. The pressure change is infinitesimal compared to the forces needed to fracture rock. If a system is close enough to eruption to where that would make a difference, then it was already in the process of beginning to erupt.

      To give you an example… at an atmosphere of 1010 mb, the confining pressure of the overburden at 5km depth is 132.4955 Mpa. If there is a low system of 940 mb over that location, the confining pressure becomes 132.4885 Mpa.

      Confining pressure is from the mass of the overburden, or rock above the depth in question. I used the standard which is common for these sort of back of the envelope calculations → 2700 kg/m³. (essentially, the density of granite). From what I’m reading, granite has a tensile strength of about 4.8 Mpa. The confining pressure acts to keep any new cracks from forming by augmenting the wall strength at depth. If a reservoir/chamber pressure exceeds the hoop strength, it can fracture the wall and start propagating a dike. (and potentially, eventually erupt if it reaches the surface, but, according to Pinel et al, if the chamber pressure drops below the confining pressure, the dike slams shut.)

      For a detailed discussion of this, I recommend “Caldera formation by magma withdrawal from a reservoir beneath a volcanic edifice” Pinel, Jaupart (Earth and Planetary Science Letters 230 (2005) 273– 287)

      • I think we explored that during the El Hierro thing. I know I had to dig around and find a lot of tide data for another commenter who wanted to look into it. I think the final disposition was that the amount of stress variation was just as minor compared to the chamber pressures as I noted about the atmosphere in my 23:23 comment.

        What it boils down to, is that if the system is that close to eruption already, the difference works out to maybe a few seconds of when the eruption actually occurs. Not whether it does or does not erupt. If that were the case, we could stack goats on the volcano and keep it from erupting if we had enough goats.

        • And of course you would need someone to keep an eye on the goats so that they didn’t wander off and let the eruption happen. Bardi could do it, but Katla killed him.

      • The storm surge may a few meters high. 1 atmosphere pressure corresponds to 10 meter of water, so a 3 meter surge add about 0.3 atmosphere. That would change lurking’s 5-km pressure from 132.4955 to 132.5255 MPa. A negligible change, but also one that actually stabilises the magma as the pressure increases – it goes the opposite way to the air pressure. Of course, where there is a surge there is also a place where the water must go down. Still, even there the pressure change is too small to make a difference. Hurricanes do not cause eruptions. Although that is a small consolation for people having to live through the fourth disaster storm this season. It is a bad year.

    • “While the implications of this are still not fully understood, the relatively low amount of seismic activity in the area since the 1980s suggests that pressure is building within the caldera, making it more dangerous”

      An alternate less spooky view:

      Or that much of the rock is still above the brittle-ductile transition temperature and tends to deform or ooze rather than fracture. It is my belief that the “Dead Zone” in Iceland follows similar mechanics.

  8. I like to add some info on the subject regarding the Nothwest part of the United States, Oregon and Washington. America has such small text in the article … 🙂 Written records are scarse indeed, the country was scarsely populated also in former times. Maybe that is why the neighbouring native tribes had its own name for a volcano they were about living next to. The names of volcanoes that have survived the European invasion are sometimes mentioned in several legends, these legends often have same story components but take place in a bit different setting.

    • The Klikitats called Mt. St. Helen Louwala-Clough (Smoking Mountain), nearby living Puyallup tribes called the same mountain Loowitlatkla (Lady of Fire). A native legend tells about a battle between the brothers Wy’East (Mt.Hood) and Pahto (Mt. Adams) arguing fiery about the good looking La-wa-la-clough (Mt. St. Helens). The argue was accompanied with the throwing of glowing rocks.
      Battling spirits, thundergods, living at Mt. Hood and Mt. Adams are acting in another legend. They threw rocks at eachother which still can be found lying around far away from the mountains tops, rounded rocks called thundereggs nowadays. Large thundereggs were used by native tribes as markings for burial grounds in the current Warm Springs Reservation.
      Getting way OT now but it gives me the chance to show one of those battle stones I purchased from a Warm Springs res. native… 😀

      Cut battle rock from Eagle Creek, Warm Springs Res., OR/USA, about 30 cm.

      • Thanks! I have added some of this to the text. I could find little from the pre-european Americas. Any information is most welcome! This is growing into a very nice resource.

      • Thanks, Rob.there is a similar story from the Klamath and Kurocs.
        about a battle between Mazama and Shasta. -Resulting in Mazama really losing his head over the girl..
        Read that in a old book in the Klamath fall, Or, city library.-the name escapes me..

  9. I like very much this post!
    I’ve found in a 1820 science journal in Florence this supposed etymology for volcanus: archaic
    volk – agnia , translated as magician of fire (in this case volk could be the ancient root of work/worker and folk). In my opinion both volk and agnia have sanskrit origins, where agni is fire. Volk could have different meaning; in sanskrit volka is swarm, but volk could have also the meaning of moltitude, or roots and other meanings that i’ll not mention. In Italy we have many common words with sanskrit origins, for example we say dad “babbo” or “papà”, both from sanskrit “baba”.
    But this is only a my opinion, the etymology of Volcanus is nowadays a mistery, there are only suppositions.
    I hope my bad english is enough understandable.

    • Thank you for the sanskrit tie in! Yet another example of the Indo-European Language family!

    • Interesting! The Sanskrit connection is not listed in modern sources I know of, and the Minoan Velchanos seems more distant from the proposed word. Have you found anything in more recent papers? It is always hard to know how words have evolved, unless it is found in a range of related languages.

      • I particularly like the Hephaestus → “Worker of Fire” or “Fire Magician” tie in.

      • Unfortunately i’ve not found nothing in more recent papers, nothing on dictionaries; but i think that agnia has a sense, because of it is fire. An example of the use of the root “ignis”(latin,derived from agni) is also the word ignimbrite:
        ignis + imber —> fire + rain (rain of fire)


        Hephaestus is the sumerian god Gibil, from gish.bil = one who uses fire
        Though the two words are different, the meaning of the name of that god is the same of “magician of fire”.

    • well it will have wobbled it – as it is between pueblo and mexico city, but unless the edifice is unstable (and thus has a landslide) it will have had very little effect on the constraining pressure of the magma chamber – so unless it happened to be ready to pop – not much alters the slow movement of magma upward, if it is ready it is ready (and if it is not then not much will affect that) – only chopping a chunk of mountain off the top will make it that much closer to the surface – but if that didn’t happen (and I don’t think it did or someone would have mentioned it by now) then nothing to see (except in the super long term where another bit of the cocos plate has subducted so will eventually melt and become magma)

  10. Very interesting article. One will never know when exactly was used the word volcano for the first time. The Arabic scholar al-Idrîsî (1099-1165) in his geographic encyclopedia uses the word borkan for the Karthala at Grande Comore. Albert the Great (1200-1280) in Latin speaks of volcano in “On the corruption of the elements” But it was through the conquistadors that the word volcano entered modern languages in the countryside in Guatemala in 1524 by Pedro de Alvarado (1485-1541)
    As for the Amharic language the word ገሞራ (Transliteration gemora) comes from the biblical term Gomorrah city destroyed by a rain of fire. Today it refers to something that erupts.
    The word እሳት Refers to fire, flames (Transliteration “isati” Declension እሳት (əsat)) 🙂

  11. Is there going to be a post on the situation at Agung? This seems significant if two of its historical eruptions were VEI 5, possibly the next one will be too, or at least one of the potentially bigger eruptions this century so far.


    • Based on the last VEI-5 eruption that occurred at Agung, we may not see anything big at the start of the eruption. The 1963 eruption started off with a lava flow and relatively non-explosive volcanism. This later evolved into larger much more explosive eruptions however.

      Based on what occurred, I believe that there was a period of excruding degassed magma that had likely cooled in the upper conduits and chambers, which was the result of the lava flow. Once this magma was out of the way, the more explosive magma gas-rich magma that had pushed the degassed magma away was free to form a more explosive eruption as it de-pressurized.

      With that said, Agung has had small eruptions as well as large ones. so we will not fully know what will happen even if the initial eruption starts out small or effusive. It could end simply as a small eruption, or it could be significantly larger. It is all likely a matter of how much fresh and pressurized magma is pushing out magma from below.

      • The thing that I believe makes people worried about Agung, is that it has the capability to form a very large eruption. In the last 1000 years alone, there have been two VEI-7 eruptions from volcanoes very close to it (Tambora and Rinjani/Samalas). On the very same island, there are two enormous calderas that have both represented VEI-7 eruptions, some of which have occurred multiple times. Agung does not have a known caldera at this point, but the fact that it has been pushing out large eruptions of a VEI-5 size signals that it has a very large magma chamber that can store the amount of magma required to form a very large eruption. The large edifice also indicates that it could possibly be closer to an end-stage form of the volcano before a caldera event would occur (geological time here).

        This however does not indicate it will do this soon or within the next few eruptions, but it does show that a large eruption is at least a small possibility. And while it’s highly unlikely we will see an eruption larger than VEI-5 within our lifetimes from Agung, we should still be aware of Agung’s potential.

  12. I just notices that by going to and clicking through th eforeign language names in th ebottom left you can get some more varients

    western frisian (you get the name in english as a mouseover text for Frysk) is Fulkaan, Breton has Menez-tan (which means fire mountain) there are a bunch of others – several with scripts I can’t read

  13. in first grade, the teacher asked me to request the janitors presence… a child had vomited. Couldn’t i say ‘spit up’?? i know the word ‘spit up’. ‘vomited’ was new to me…. “No”, she said… say “vomited”. so i practiced the word all the way down the long hall … v…v…. v …. vomited.. v..v..v like volcano… vomited.. v,v,vomited. So i knocked on the janitors door and confidently announced the message…” Please come, a child has erupted.”
    i’m over 70 and to this day i remember that huge man trying to stifle a smile.

    • Nice connection to someone on site….. always like those….. Thanks, Best!motsfo

  14. The word used in the Philippines probably comes from the Spanish “volcán”. These islands were colonized by the Spanish in 1565, when the establishment of Cebu was created

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