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Arabic weather term ‘haboob’ is apparently troubling for some Texans

On Sunday evening, a haboob — like the one shown here — rolled through Lubbock, Tex., but some Texans were more upset by the terminology than the storm itself. (Daniel Bryant)
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A wall of dust raced toward Lubbock, Tex., on Sunday, and the National Weather Service threw out a word of caution on its Facebook page. “A haboob is rapidly approaching the Lubbock airport and may affect the city as well,” the meteorologists wrote.

The use of  the meteorological term “haboob,” a word with Arabic roots, didn’t sit well with some residents.

Reader John Fullbright wrote:

Haboob!?! I’m a Texan. Not a foreigner from Iraq or Afghanistan. They might have haboobs but around here in the Panhandle of TEXAS, we have Dust Storms. So would you mind stating it that way. I’ll find another weather service

Brenda Daffern added:

In Texas, nimrod, this is called a sandstorm. We’ve had them for years! If you would like to move to the Middle East you can call this a haboob. While you reside here, call it a sandstorm. We Texans will appreciate you.

To be clear, the Weather Service’s use of ‘haboob’ was entirely appropriate. It describes a situation in which a collapsing thunderstorm exhales a burst of wind. This burst of wind, or outflow, collects dust in the surrounding arid environment. The dust can grow into a towering dark cloud, the so-called haboob, that sweeps across the landscape, cutting visibility to near zero.

Haboobs are common in the desert Southwest and the Middle East, where the term originated.

It’s also true that many weather and Earth science terms we use are derived from other languages — hurricane, tornado and derecho are all Spanish in origin, not to mention El Niño and La Niña. There’s also the Japanese term tsunami. In fact, there is very little in the English language that doesn’t have roots somewhere else in the world.

Watch this haboob take over Texas airport (Video: Facebook/US National Weather Service Lubbock Texas)

At Weather Underground, meteorologist Bob Henson clarified the difference between haboobs, very localized phenomena, and dust storms and sand storms, which tend to cover more territory:

Extreme blowing dust episodes, or duststorms, typically cover a large area, as opposed to the narrow zone of a haboob. Sandstorms occur when sand grains are blown across the lowest few feet of the landscape, usually in true deserts rather than semiarid regions.

The term haboob has been around for decades. As Henson notes, “‘[H]aboob’ is hardly a new term in the meteorological literature. As noted by Maryland weathercaster and AGU blogger Dan Satterfield, a 1925 paper in the Quarterly Journal of the Royal Meteorological Society was titled ‘Haboobs’.”

Objections to the use of haboob are not unique to Texas. The New York Times wrote about an uproar over the term in Arizona in 2011, when Don Yonts of Gilbert, Ariz., told the Arizona Republic: “I am insulted that local TV news crews are now calling this kind of storm a haboob, How do they think our soldiers feel coming back to Arizona and hearing some Middle Eastern term?”

Of course, the actions of a few shouldn’t color all Texans and Arizonans as prejudiced. The Times quoted David Wilson of Goodyear, Ariz., who said: “Let’s not become so ‘xenophobic’ that we forget to remember that we are citizens of the world, nor fail to recognize the contributions of all cultures to the richness of our language.”

Meanwhile, on Facebook, a number of readers posted strongly worded retorts to those who posted complaints about the Weather Service’s use of the term in Lubbock:

Reader Trent Spencer said: “I keep forgetting how ignorant the people of the Panhandle can be.”

And Charles Russell added: “To all of you people complaining about a word. Do you all realize how stupid y’all look? I mean, the rest of the country and the world is laughing at y’all. …  [S]top getting offended over nothing. It’s super annoying to the civilized world.”

Angela Fritz contributed to this post.