Seek consensus in using PH word for surge

This is in response to the proposal of Kelvin Rodolfo, Ph.D., to call storm surges silakbô. However, that proposal is also fraught with difficulties.

Silakbô is understood in the Tagalog/Filipino language with the meaning as something that refers to the emotions. This word hardly refers to an oceanographic phenomenon at all.


‘Tsu-balod,’ ‘tsu-alon’

Rodolfo correctly points out the difficulties of using portmanteaus like tsu-balod or tsu-alon, which I pointed out in another article.


Since he has proposed that linguistic heritage is to be preserved, what is much better than to look into existing words in Philippine languages that refer to large waves?

There is no need to coin portmanteaus or even append new meanings to other Filipino words unless there is no equivalent. While some of these words have lost or changed their original meaning as a result of social change, it is possible to recover the meanings of these words or append updated meanings to them, which essentially gives a more objective character to them.

As a bonus, these words will be rescued from disuse and will enter our Filipino scientific and technical lexicon.

Rodolfo uses the example of lahar, which is a word commonly used in Indonesia and comes from the Javanese language. The Javanese live on an island with many active volcanoes and the noun and its meaning are part of their cognition of a natural geological hazard. That lahar was easily adopted by Filipinos is partly due to the fact that there is no analogue in Philippine  languages and it comes from a closely related language.

It was the job of scientists like  Rodolfo to provide the objective meaning. And they did it quite well, preserving the Javanese meaning and translating it to Philippine languages.


Rodolfo and geohazard scientists can pin down the meaning of humbak. From my field work as an environmental and marine scientist, and biogeographer, I found that the word meant “waves brought in by storms.” This was what we gathered from barangays in areas geologists would consider prone to storm surges and tsunamis, like in some Mindoro Occidental island communities.


These communities have developed a traditional system in response to humbakhumbak or a series of huge waves associated with cyclones. The community objectively knows that the wave is a trough but they also know that being in the trough is the most dangerous place to be.

‘Sapao,’ ‘daluyong’

We cannot assume that if it is a trough or a cavity, then it is safe. Several written accounts dating back to the Spanish colonial period prove otherwise. Humbakhumbak poses a danger to life and property.

In Batangas, they may even differentiate the words according to the nature of the physical event. Old Batangas Tagalog has the words sapao to describe inundation due to seismic events (like ancient eruptions of Taal Volcano) and daluyong to describe large waves, tidal or pushed by long amplitude waves driven by wind.

Mandaluyong, Makati

It is indeed possible that the place name Mandaluyong refers to a historical memory of long amplitude waves entering the Pasig River estuary and losing their energy in a place called Makati. [One meaning of kati in Filipino is rising or receding water. It also means land. –Ed.)

Given the traditional meanings of Mandaluyong and Makati, we can hypothesize that these refer to an observation of tidal bores which no longer happen on the Pasig River.


As for the word and place name Tacloban, Eduardo C. Arrojado, Ph.D., (Talk of the Town, Dec. 8, 2013) says it means “to cover.” That indeed is the old meaning in old Bisayan and old Tagalog, which I referenced in an essay. While in Tagalog, it preserves mainly its original meaning, in today’s Bisayan languages it has taken a slightly different meaning, which includes to be covered with cloth e.g. “to clothe oneself” or even a sexual meaning of a woman “covered by a man not her husband” in bed!

If we have to adopt tacloban then we have to consider these meanings, which may not be in dictionaries like the one compiled by Fr. Leo English. Another thing, the nation should respect the sensibilities of the citizens of Tacloban if we were to select the name of their beloved city to refer to a disaster-causing natural event.

Will they consent? I say not. They may even resort to use the word manila in retaliation, to refer to political and economic incompetence!

Similarly sapao or sapaw in today’s Tagalog/Filipino orthography has a different meaning no longer referring to a flooding event. Sapaw has taken metaphorical meanings like in “Nasapawan ka ng amateur singer na ’yon.”

However, it would be possible to recover these old meanings to refer to natural hazards. In some places in Batangas, sapao is still used to describe structures that protect the shore from large waves. A bit of the old meaning has been preserved.

‘Alum,’ ‘basaw’

Also one need not limit selecting the words from Tagalog which will surely infuriate speakers of other Philippine languages. We could use the words alum and basaw to refer to Ondoy-like flooding of floodplain communities.

These words come from the Itawes and Ibanag languages of the Cagayan Valley. These words refer to the economically disruptive flooding they face and it’s not just the Tagalog baha as one Protestant minister who compiled these environmental terms told me.


The people in Aparri use the word nortada to describe the surge of amihan (northeast monsoon), which even in old Tagalog as documented by the French explorer Alfred Marche, meant the same thing.

In proposing Filipino terms for natural hazards, I suggest that we adopt a consensus approach, which cannot be solely dictated by scientists and academics but by the national community as a whole.

This is central to the science, technology and society approach first pioneered by Polish doctor Ludwig Fleck in the 1930s who had to translate medical terminologies for his patients. This approach would require that we know what words are used in the different Philippine cultures and languages to describe the hazard and then ascertain the objective meaning of the word.

Now, if our local communities will find a word incorporating tsunami that is more understandable, then so be it. But make sure the meaning is ascertained and media practitioners and communicators will ensure that it means storm surge.

After all, the scientific community has coined “meteotsunami” to describe cyclone-generated waves that behave like tsunamis. The goal is always reduced vulnerability for human communities.

(Benjamin Vallejo Jr., Ph.D., is a member of the faculty of Institute of Environmental Science and Meteorology and coordinator of the Science and Society Program. He is also a faculty affiliate at the Department of Geography, College of Social Sciences and Philosophy at the University of the Philippines.)

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TAGS: Benjamin Vallejo Jr., PH word for storm surge, Storm Surge, Talk of the Town
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