The 6.0 earthquake that hit the Napa Valley and destroyed some barrels of wine had a predictable aftereffect: the trotting out of the uncommon word temblor. Temblor is the favorite second-reference word among journalists for earthquake, and it seems to have little utility elsewhere.
I tweeted this bit of advice on the word, which is sometimes rendered incorrectly as tremblor (both tremble and temblor trace their roots to the Latin tremulus).
Temblor means earthquake. It’s Spanish (temblor de tierra) for tremble or shake. Tremblor is a variant that’s best avoided.
To this, linguist Neal Whitman of the Literal Minded blog responded:
@EditorMark I thought “temblor” was just a term journalists used on second reference to an earthquake. Third reference is “quake”.
Both those tweets are mostly true. Temblor does have utility in Spanish, and not just in newspapers and on television. Terremoto is a better translation of earthquake, with temblor more likely to describe a smaller event, a tremor. A tremor or temblor doesn’t have to refer to the shaking earth.
With California the site of most of the quake activity in the United States, it’s not surprising a Spanish word would make the leap to English. This probably happened in the 19th century.
It is hard to find temblor outside news reports of earthquakes. Quake is a much more common alternative to earthquake, according to the Google Books corpus.
The Oxford English Dictionary’s first temblor citation is from 1876 in a book by Bret Harte, an American writer whose favorite topic was the California gold rush. The Google Books corpus shows several accounts published in English in the 1830s and 1840s of Latin Americans shouting temblor! as the earth begins to shake.
There is nothing wrong with temblor, but the best advice is to be explicit, and say the universally understood earthquake when you mean earthquake.