Let’s call storm surges ‘silakbô’ in Pilipino

Creating or choosing a Pilipino term is serious business; here, scientist Kelvin Rodolfo suggests a term Filipinos could use to translate "storm surge"

RodolfoAntonio Oposa’s November 25 article, “Victims or victors of the climate crisis?” published on Rappler and republished in the Philippine Daily Inquirer on December 7 was profound and thought-provoking, and raises many important points.  It is good that he is seeking a Pilipino name for “storm surge”. 

At Pinatubo during the 1990s, we inadvertently stumbled upon one of our most valuable educational tools, when we introduced  ”lahar” to the people threatened by that phenomenon.  It was a real word, commonly used in Indonesia, and already had been adopted in scientific circles after we started using it in our scientific papers about our work at Mayon. 

But it was new to people around Pinatubo, whose attention and interest were aroused when they first heard it. And when they would eagerly ask, “What does ‘lahar’ mean?” the learning process would begin naturally.

So we do need a good Pilipino word.  Unfortunately, “tsu-alon” or “tsu-balod” is not very appropriate. 

Tsunami comes from the Japanese tsu meaning “harbor”, and nami meaning “wave”. So tsu-alon would be a  “Japalog” word that would back-translate into tsunami in pure Japanese.

In naming “storm surge” in Pilipino, we must get away entirely from “tsunami” or anything like the term. This is because tsunamis and storm surges differ in very important ways, and conflating them can create serious problems. 

Tsunamis are generated by four different and unpredictable triggers: Undersea volcanic eruptions, earthquakes and landslides, and, much more rarely, by large meteorite impacts in the ocean. Tsunamis can come with very little warning.  For example, the 11 March 2011 tsunami that devastated Fukushima occurred only about an hour after the Tohoku earthquake.

People know about the very short lead times of tsunamis, and if told a tsunami is coming, they can easily panic, which by itself can be lethal. On December 1, residents of Iloilo, Antique, and Capiz were needlessly panicked by a false “tsunami” alarm. This happened again in Basey, Samar on December 12.  This is because people think storm surges and tsunamis are the same thing.

Unlike tsunamis, thank goodness, storm surges are preceded by several days of lead time, during which the approaching typhoon can be closely monitored, and orderly preparations can be made to evacuate the people in harm’s way and minimize both panic and the impact itself.

Mahar Lagmay of Project Noah and I have also been looking for a Pilipino word for “storm surge”.  We were glad to learn that historian Jaime Tiongson of Bahay Saliksikan ng Kasaysayan (BAKAS), had put forward humbak.  But it turns out to be even more inappropriate than “tsu-alon” – humorously so, as I will show.

Creating or choosing a Pilipino term is serious business. We want it to be new, to arouse interest; and to sound like something serious, a hazard. But we must also be respectful of the language, protective of our linguistic heritage; it should be a real word, preferably one that currently is rarely used, so it is new to most people. Finally, it must be faithful to the nature of the thing we are defining.

To begin a serious search for a proper word, I consulted the very best English-Tagalog and Tagalog-English dictionaries available, those of Father Leo English, a Redemptorist priest from Australia.

Fr. English began compiling his Tagalog-English and English-Tagalog dictionaries during World War II in Los Baños where he was a prisoner of the Japanese.  It took him 30 years to complete them while he lived with and ministered to Batangueños. These superb lexicons give examples of proper usage. No other dictionaries are as complete; his English-Tagalog Dictionary boasts 1,211 pages; his Tagalog-English Dictionary is 1,583 pages long.

In 1960, when Jose Villa Panganiban, Director of the Institute of National Language, first saw Fr. English’s Tagalog-English dictionary in manuscript, the INI English-Tagalog Dictionary had just been published. Panganiban, however, concluded that Fr. English’s work was more complete and displayed “profound scholarship”, and he encouraged the priest to continue his work.  The only edition of the INI English-Tagalog Dictionary was its run of 13,000 copies in1960.  Effectively, INI yielded the field to Fr. English, whose English-Tagalog Dictionary was first published by Kalayaan Press in 1977.  The Australian Government has subsidized many subsequent printings; my copy is from the 19th printing in 1994. 

Fr. English’s Tagalog-English Dictionary took longer to publish, also by Kalayaan Press.  Its first printing was in 1986, and my copy is of the 9th printing, dated 1994.  In that lexicon, Humbak is defined as “trough between waves”.  Its other meaning is “depression in a surface”. Fr. English gives humpak as a synonym. But he separately translated “humpak” in its own right as an adjective meaning “hollow”, “sunken”, or “concave”, as in reference to cheeks hollowed by sleeplessness: Humpak ang mga pisngi niya dahil sa kapupuyat.  This enforces the fact that humbak is the exact opposite of “wave”!

This has been corroborated by National Artist Virgilio Almario: “Ang humbak ay pagitan ng dalawang alon. Ito yung cavity na tinatawag. Walang laman.

So how did Fr. English translate the noun “surge” into Tagalog? Turning to his English-Tagalog Dictionary:

“surge: (2) n. a wave; a sweep or rush of waves: Paggulong ng alon, Daluyong.  The surge of the sea: Ang daluyong ng dagat.”

Can daluyong serve?  Unfortunately, the term is widely understood to simply mean “large ocean wave”, and storm surges are more complicated than typical water waves that repeatedly arrive every few seconds.

To learn the difference between a storm surge and storm waves, video footages of the surge and storm waves in Manila Bay generated by Typhoon Pedring in December 2011 are very instructive.  These are widely available on the internet: and

Most viewers mistakenly think that the gigantic storm waves, following each other every several seconds, smashing against the breakwater and sending huge plumes up higher than the tallest coconut trees along the boulevard, are separate storm surges, but they are not. A single surge takes hours and even days to pass, depending on the motion and duration of the generating typhoon, and its timing with respect to the tides. Project Noah has determined that the Pedring surge lasted about 36 hours and was only 1.8 meters high.

During the short periods of the footages, the surge has already raised the water level and has flooded inland to inundate the U.S. Embassy and areas beyond it. But its height doesn’t change while we watch.  What inspires our awe are not storm surges, they are regular storm waves riding atop the storm surge.  

Continuing Fr. English’s definition of “surge”:

(3) something like  a wave: Silakbô.  Bugso.  A surge of anger: Silakbô ng galit.

“Bugso” is already widely used by Pagasa, in reference to cloudbursts and thundershowers, “pabugso-bugso”.  This leaves silakbô.

Fr. English’s example of surging anger suggests violence, and the stress on the last syllable may also euphonically suggest suddenness.   

So how about Silakbô ng bagyo?  That would literally mean “storm surge”.  With continued use, Silakbô alone would eventually suffice.

Kelvin S. Rodolfo is a Professor Emeritus at the Department of Earth & Environmental Sciences at the University of Illinois at Chicago. He is also a corresponding member of the National Academy of Science and Technology (Philippines).