Final Word

SA’s economic tsunami – its crisis and panic


A wave of bad news hit the South African economy recently, triggering headlines like “South Africa’s coming economic tsunami” to describe a looming crisis on that front and warnings of panic setting in amongst investors.

That got me thinking about the roots of these terms of doom and gloom and their appropriateness in an economic context.

‘Tsunami’ was the one that delivered the biggest surprise as it is so far removed from the normal cradles of English and most other European languages. No link to Greek, Latin or even Hindi.

It turns out that the word comes from Japanese, which is part of the East-Asian groups of languages. In Japanese the words tsu, meaning ‘harbour’, and nami, meaning ‘waves’, were combined to describe the phenomenon typically accompanying earthquakes in or close to coastal regions, be it on land or under the sea.

A tsunami is usually a series of long, high waves caused by the displacement of large volumes of water.

The word is said to have been coined by fishermen who sometimes, when returning to port, found the port and its surrounding area destroyed, even though they have not been aware of anything out of the ordinary while fishing in the open ocean.

The phenomenon was actually first noted in recorded ancient European history (before recorded Japanese history) as far back as 1 600 BC, when the first known European civilisation, the Minoan culture on Crete, was devastated by an explosive eruption on the island of Thera. The eruption was accompanied by what was then erroneously regarded as a tidal wave.

Some source speculate that the legend of Atlantis, which disappeared under the sea and was recorded in Plato’s work Timaeus in 360 BC, well after the fact, represents a flawed recollection of a tsunami event. Be that as it may, the Græco-Roman world experienced various important tsunamis, with the one in 479 BC at Potidala, in Greece, as far as is known, the first one of which contemporary records exist.

In 79 AD Pliny the Younger described an event following an eruption of that year, writing: “The sea seemed to roll back upon itself, and to be driven from its banks by the convulsive motion of the earth.”

And interestingly, another Greek scholar, the historian Thucydides, already in 426 BC, in his work History of the Peloponnesian War, aired the opinion that the phenomenon we today know as tsunami, is linked to earthquakes. “Without an earthquake I do not see how such an accident could happen,” he wrote.

Move to Japan

After the classical period, direct references to tsunamis largely disappear from literature, although some scholars speculate that there is a reference to one in Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe (1719) where he wrote about an earthquake followed by a storm accompanied by the sea flooding the shore.

In Japan, with 195 tsunamis in recorded history, the phenomenon did not fade from memory. Pretty early these seismic waves became associated with earthquakes and got their own name.The phenomenon was first recorded in Japan in 684, and the word tsunam recorded 1612 in an official diary.

‘Tsunami’ came into English courtesy of two journalists and authors, Eliza Ruhamah Scidmore (1896, in an article for National Geographic) and Patrick Lafcadio Hearn who used it in his 1897 book Gleanings from Buddha Fields. Scidmore wrote about how on “the evening of June 15, 1896, the northeast coast of Hondo, the main island of Japan, was struck by a great earthquake wave (tsunami), which was more destructive of life and property than any earthquake convulsion of this century in that empire”.

It claimed the lives of 26 975 people, which one can well imagine caused quite a ‘crisis’.

Crisis and panic

The word ‘crisis’ has more traditional English and Germanic roots. It is a Latinised version of the Greek word krisis, referring to a “turning point in a disease” when things can either improve or take a turn for the worse, and was used as such by the famous Hippocrates and Galen. It, however, also became used to mean “judgement, result of a trial or selection” from the word krinein, meaning “to separate, decide or judge”.

The word arrived in English during the early 15th century, and was originally used in the medical sense. It started to include the non-medical meaning we know today early in the 17th century.

Since it can be used to describe that point in a work of literature, be it a novel, short story or drama, after which a final conclusion unfolds, a point at which a decision on a matter becomes unavoidable or control might finally be lost – in short, a final turning point.

And that brings us to our final, and probably most interesting, word for this week, ‘panic’, that sudden sensation of fear that can destroy all reason and logic as anxiety and a fight-or-flight impulse take over.

It is said that prehistoric men at times used ‘mass panic’ as a hunting technique on animals.

The word indeed comes from one of the more interesting and cunning of the ancient Greek gods – a god with a bit of a split personality, who loved playing practical jokes, but could also be very cruel and driven by vanity.

The original word ‘panic’ comes from the Greek word panikos, meaning “pertaining to Pan”, who took amusement from frightening animal herds. In Greek mythology he was a god of the wild, and also of rustic music – whence the name for the pan flute.

He is also connected to fertility, and is at the same time a symbol of fun and playfulness and of terror – therefore closely associated with forests, which during the day can be inviting, but threatening at night.

The word came to English via the French word panique, from the Latin panicus, in turn from Greek’s panikos.

In the sense of being associated with widespread apprehension about financial matters, the term was first recorded in 1757 and the term ‘panic attack’ as late as 1970.

Interestingly, we also got the German term Torschlusspanik, literally meaning ‘shut-the-door-panic’, for the fear of being on the wrong side of a closing door and for the state of mind known in English as a ‘mid-life crisis’.

by Piet Coetzer

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