This bore is not a bore

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I was thrilled when I came upon this 3:04 YouTube video by chance on the morning of the mid-Autumn festival (October 1):

The video shows the spectacular tidal bore surging up the Qiantang River.  Along with Hangzhou Bay south of Shanghai, the river is known "for having the world's largest tidal bore, a phenomenon where [the] leading edge of the incoming tide forms a wave (or waves) of water that travels up a river or narrow bay against the direction of the river or bay's current." (source)

I was particularly enchanted to see what the Qiantang River tidal bore looks like in reality because, nearly four decades ago, I had translated and annotated a long, rhapsodic poem by a Han Dynasty author, Mei Cheng 枚乘 (d. 140 BC), titled "Qī fā 七發" ("Seven Stimuli").  One of the sections of the poem is an elaborate, epideictic description of the Qiantang tidal bore.  Here's a sample of the writing:

gǔ chányuán
pīyáng liúsǎ
hèngbào zhī jí
yú biē shīshì
diāndǎo yǎncè
yóuyóu yuányuán
púfú liányán
shénwù guàiyí
bùkě shèngyán


Yet it gurgles, bubbles, murmurs, ruffles;
displaying its spray, flaunting its splash,
it is the extreme of perversity.
Fish and turtles lose their bearings in it —
they are tossed and turned topsy-turvy;
disoriented and bewildered,
they stumble, tumble, fumble, bumble.
Since even sprites are left spellbound,
there is no way adequately to describe it.

This is just a tiny taste of the florid, almost lexicographical verbiage describing the Qiantang bore that goes on for pages.


Mei Cherng's "Seven Stimuli" and Wang Bor's "Pavilion of King Terng": Chinese Poems for Princes (Lewiston, NY:  E. Mellen Press, 1988).  Amazon

This uniquely configured volume features an elaborately annotated translation of the complete rhapsody, Old Sinitic reconstructions of the rhyme words, woodcuts and plastercuts illustrating all seven of the stimuli that are presented in the lengthy poem, with the text in beautifully brushed calligraphy.  Both the Chinese original and the English translation are positioned on the page so as to reveal the syntactic structure and grammatical nature of the text.

The translation is also available in:

Victor H. Mair, ed., The Columbia Anthology of Traditional Chinese Literature (1996), selection 152, pp. 422-427 of pp. 411-428.

_____, ed., The Shorter Columbia Anthology of Traditional Chinese Literature (2000), selection 124, pp. 223-228 of pp. 211-229.

As for "bore", there are two main etymological sources:


From Middle English boren, from Old English borian (to pierce), from Proto-Germanic *burōną. Compare Danish bore, Norwegian Bokmål bore, Dutch boren, German bohren, Old Norse bora. Cognate with Latin forō (to bore, to pierce), Latin feriō (strike, cut) and Albanian birë (hole). Sense of wearying may come from a figurative use such as "to bore the ears"; confer German drillen.


From Middle English *bore, bare, a borrowing from Old Norse bára (billow, wave). Cognate with Icelandic bára, Faroese bára.


One must be wary of false etymologies, not just with morphosyllabically written words, but also with alphabetically written terms.


Selected readings

[Thanks to Ronald Egan, Paul Kroll, Richard Lynn, Michael Carr, and William Nienhauser]


  1. ajay said,

    October 5, 2020 @ 7:46 am

    Etymology Man has thoughts about "tidal waves", and, looking at that tidal bore, the similarity is really obvious.

  2. Robert Coren said,

    October 5, 2020 @ 10:03 am

    There is also an impressive tidal bore at the mouth of the Bay of Fundy in New Brunswick, Canada. I have not seen it myself, but parents reported on it after a vacation trip to the region when I was a kid (including a site called "The River of the Reversing Falls", where the bore is apparently strong enough to cause the water to run up what would normally be a waterfall). Well, sort of; Wikipedia article here, videos here and here. The latter is shorter but has annoying superimposed text.

  3. Robert Coren said,

    October 5, 2020 @ 10:06 am

    @ajay: I have a vague memory of a book about waves and other ocean phenomena I read a few decades ago, in which it was mentioned that scientists didn't like the term tidal wave as generally applied to large waves that have nothing to do with tides, leading to the popularization of the term tsunami – which, according to the author, is simply Japanese for tidal wave

  4. Richard John Lynn said,

    October 5, 2020 @ 11:21 am

    I also translated a sanqu about the Qiantang bore, in my book, Kuan Yun-Shih (1286-1324), available at the website address. It is Lyric 63 on page 174.

  5. Philip Taylor said,

    October 5, 2020 @ 12:41 pm

    When I was a youngster (shall we say 65 years ago), we had tidal waves. By "we", I don't mean my family, of course, but tidal waves existed, were reported in the press, and were documented in encyclopædias. Then, maybe 20 years ago, tsunamis appeared on the scene. Not until today, however, on reading this thread, did it occur to me that they might be one and the same thing. Thank you, Language Log !

  6. John Rohsenow said,

    October 5, 2020 @ 1:50 pm

    Having lived in and visited Hangzhou many times, I have seen this
    many times. The first time my host institution took a group of us
    "foreigners" up to a spot where it was supposed to be particularly
    dramatic, and there were hundreds of other Chinese tourists there
    waiting in the hot sun, or under tents; unfortunately that year (Oct.
    1979) it wasn't much, but another time, probably in the 90s, I just
    happened to be driving (well, being driven) up the road along the
    Qintang River past the Six Harmonies Pagoda, and we realized that it
    was coming, so we pulled over, and it was much more dramatic,
    smashing up against the river-wall banks as it rushed by and spraying all over. All of which is to say that some Oct's it's quite dramatic and
    other times it isn't. –
    Happens that recently on television I have also seen videos of people surfing on the "tidal bore" up the Amazon. (see:
    Hoping not to be a "Tidal Bore" myself, I remain, Yours sincerely,
    Faithful Reader, Occasional Contributor. JSR

  7. ktschwarz said,

    October 5, 2020 @ 2:11 pm

    "stumble, tumble, fumble, bumble" is a great example of a phonaestheme in English. I'm guessing this was inspired by the repetitive sounds as in "yóuyóu yuányuán"?

  8. Victor Mair said,

    October 5, 2020 @ 3:44 pm

    Learned essay on the Qiantang tidal bore:

    "The Tide of Revolution"
    錢江潮/ 浙江潮
    Geremie R. Barmé
    CHINA HERITAGE QUARTERLY China Heritage Project, The Australian National University ISSN 1833-8461
    No. 28, December 2011

  9. Anthea Fleming said,

    October 5, 2020 @ 9:54 pm

    A related phenomenon is the Horizontal Waterfall on the Kimberley Coast of Western Australia. This is an area of strong tides rushing in and out of funnel-shaped inlets on a complex coast. Where rocky ranges run parallel to the coast, the sea has forced a narrow entry to a large lagoon, with a second similar entry to a second lagoon parallel to the first. The force of the current on the way in and out really lives up to its name, rising to great height of furious tumbling water. Entry and exit by boat is possible at low water, but takes great skill.

  10. ajay said,

    October 6, 2020 @ 4:17 am

    which, according to the author, is simply Japanese for tidal wave

    "Tsunami" literally means "harbour wave" which is really no better as a name, because they are nothing to do with harbours, though I would speculate that they are more severe when they hit (natural) harbours as the wave will get funneled in and grow higher and more damaging. I note that "seismic wave" was considered as an alternative, but of course other things besides seismic activity can cause tsunamis. All very unsatisfactory.

  11. Michael Watts said,

    October 6, 2020 @ 10:16 am

    I note that "seismic wave" was considered as an alternative, but of course other things besides seismic activity can cause tsunamis. All very unsatisfactory.

    As noted in the XKCD strip, it seems perfectly plausible to interpret "tidal wave" as "a wave that behaves like the tide" (which it does) rather than "a wave that is caused by the tide" (which it isn't).

    Insisting that "tidal wave" must necessarily mean a wave caused by the tide seems similar to insisting e.g. that the phrase "my wife" is inherently degrading to women because "my" denotes ownership, while studiously ignoring that the phrase "my picture" overwhelmingly refers to a picture owned by someone other than me. (But which depicts me.)

  12. martin schwartz said,

    October 7, 2020 @ 8:15 pm

    Re Victor's very nice translation (and following up on ktschwarz's remark),
    I would have wondered, for the fifth line, whether to write
    "flush and turn topsy-turvy" to echo "fish and turtles", but I didn't have to make the decision, and probably just as well. I like "turn topsy turvy",
    I used the phrase in translating Zoroaster's Yasna 32.10, which speaks alliteratively of turning the pastures upside down (here topsy-turvy
    etymologically suggests turf and topsoil) and gives mini-instances of reversal of proper values. Kudos too to Victor's expert remarks on
    te translation of Chinese poetry–very interesting.

  13. Terry K. said,

    October 8, 2020 @ 9:38 am

    "Seismic wave" for a tsunami seems problematic also because "seismic wave" has a different meaning. Seismic waves in the ground being the typical cause of tsunamis.

  14. ajay said,

    October 9, 2020 @ 6:16 am

    Insisting that "tidal wave" must necessarily mean a wave caused by the tide seems similar to insisting e.g. that the phrase "my wife" is inherently degrading to women because "my" denotes ownership

    One of Larry Niven's "Draco Tavern" stories explored an alien language which had three sorts of possessive pronoun – intrinsic, relational and ownership. So "my brother", "my leg" and "my hat" were all translated using different words for "my". Is this something that occurs in actual languages?

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