Carried Away: 9 Words About Wind


A handful of words that we use to talk about wind are variations on names from classical mythology. In Greek legend, Aeolus was the ruler of the winds; he played a key role in Homer’s Odyssey, giving Odysseus a bag containing all of the directional winds except for the west wind to ensure the hero’s safe passage back to Ithaca. Odysseus’s shipmates opened the bag, and the winds blew their boat off course. It follows that the adjective Aeolian means “pertaining to Aeolus, or to the winds in general.” Lowercased, aeolian has a more broad meaning of “caused by the wind” or “wind-blown.” An aeolian harp is a box with strings tuned in unison that are sounded by the wind.


Zephyrus, sometimes described as the son of Aeolus, was the ruler of the west wind, the most favorable of the directional winds. He is said to have blown Aphrodite ashore after she was born in the sea. Zephyr is defined as “a gentle, mild breeze,” or “any of various things of fine, light quality, as fabric, yarn, etc.”


The Roman equivalent of Zephyrus was Favonius, whose name incorporates the Latin verb favēre meaning “to favor.” Reflecting this literary legacy, the adjective favonian is used nowadays to mean “of or pertaining to the west wind” or “mild or favorable; propitious.”


Boreas was Zephyrus’s brother in Greek mythology, and the personification of the north wind. Thus, the adjective boreal means “of or pertaining to the north wind.” Hyperborean refers to a person inhabiting a land described in Greek mythology as marked by perpetual sunshine and abundance located beyond the north wind, or more broadly, an inhabitant of an extreme northern region.


Wind-themed words come in handy for more than talking about the weather: wind has long been used as a metaphor for vacuousness and triviality. The now-obsolete adjective subventaneous entered English in the mid-1600s with a sense of “like the wind in its intangible or empty character; insubstantial empty,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary. Windy picked up a similar figurative meaning, “unsubstantial or empty,” about 50 years earlier. Windbag, referring to an empty, voluble, pretentious talker, entered English in the early 1800s.


A harmattan is a dry, parching land breeze, charged with dust in that blows in the western Sahara. The term is from Twi, a Ghanaian language belonging to the Kwa branch of the Niger-Congo subfamily of languages. Other words for desert winds include haboob, which refers to a thick dust storm or sandstorm that blows in the deserts of North Africa and Arabia or on the plains of India, and simoom, which refers to a strong sand-laden wind of the deserts of Arabia and North Africa.


A squall is a sudden, violent gust of wind, often accompanied by rain, snow, or sleet. The term can also refer to a sudden disturbance or commotion. These two meanings are likely connected, the former being a figurative extension of the latter. The precursor to both was the verb sense of squall, “to cry or scream loudly and violently.”


This now-obsolete word has several definitions: in the context of an instrument, flabile means “played by blowing”; more broadly it means “liable to be blown about.” The term is built on the Latin verb flare meaning “to blow.”


A mistral is a cold, dry, northerly wind common in southern France and neighboring regions. The term can be traced to Latin magistrālis meaning “of a master,” lending it the underlying sense of “master-wind.” These powerful winds can reach velocities of 80 miles an hour.

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