The Great Arizona Haboob Controversy

July 23, 2011

In the last couple of weeks I have read some articles about language that I just couldn’t ignore.

The latest one is about the controversy surrounding the word “haboob” in my home state, Arizona. If anything, it’s even stupider than the BBC article about barbaric Americanisms last week.

A haboob is a massive dust storm that happens in the desert. The wind picks up the dust and blows it around; a massive wall of dust can engulf the entire city of Phoenix for a few hours.

the great arizona haboob controversy

This summer, Arizona’s haboobs have gone viral. People have been calling me up from all corners of Europe asking me if my family is doing okay. I appreciate everyone’s concern, but really, a haboob is nothing to worry about. The visibility is limited, the airport closes, and everything gets a bit dusty. Nothing else.

And honestly, I’m pleasantly surprised any time Arizona is in the international news for something other than the border fence, Sheriff Joe Arpaio, Jared Lee Loughner or SB 1070. I’ll talk about haboobs all day if it means I don’t have to talk about how my state is overrun by ignorant rednecks. But the article about the haboob controversy from The New York Times made me laugh out loud, and I wanted to respond publicly:

The people of Arizona, it would appear, are worried about haboobs for another reason, quite different than the danger the dust may pose.

To quote from The New York Times:

“I am insulted that local TV news crews are now calling this kind of storm a haboob,” Don Yonts, a resident of Gilbert, Ariz., wrote to The Arizona Republic after a particularly fierce, mile-high dust storm swept through the state on July 5. “How do they think our soldiers feel coming back to Arizona and hearing some Middle Eastern term?”

Yes, it turns out that some Arizonans don’t like the appearance of Arabic words in English. Just when the soldiers thought they were safe in their McMansions, they realize that Arabic vocabulary has followed them home!

Once again, linguistic xenophobia rears its ugly head. I’m sure that Mr Don Yonts doesn’t know that words like alcohol, coffee, cotton, guitar, lemon, orange, sofa, sugar, tuna and zero are also loanwords that come from Arabic. If he did, maybe he would insist that the media stop using them as well.

Might I suggest some substitutes? How about “assparking” for sofa? And if the word “firewater” was good enough for the Native Americans, why isn’t it good enough for the rest of us?

Diane Robertson of Wickenburg, another angry Arizonan quoted in The Times, said “Excuse me, Mr Weatherman! Who gave you the right to use the word ‘haboob’ in describing our recent dust storm?”

I would like to refer Ms Robertson to the Constitution of the United States of America, a document with which she is perhaps already familiar, which establishes freedom of speech as one of the rights enjoyed by American people. While it’s difficult to determine the intention of our founding fathers on this one, we can assume that the right to select one’s own vocabulary is part of the package. Fortunately, a person doesn’t need a Supreme Court decision in order to start using words. Haboob, after all, is in Merriam Webster.

Who exactly gave Ms Robinson the right to use the word “dust?” I’d like to know! Was it the ancient Germanic tribes who invented the word? Did the English House of Lords determine that “dust” is appropriate for use in public discourse during colonial times? Is it Barack Obama’s exhortation to “pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off and begin again the work of remaking America” in his inaugural address that makes “dust” an acceptable turn of phrase? Something tells me that Ms Robertson isn’t the type to sit around waiting for an African American to tell her what words she may use…

There’s really no conclusion to this debate: the fact is that with 375 million native English speakers out there, the chances are that some of them are going to use a vocabulary that you don’t necessarily agree with. But if you spend time getting angry about other people’s word choices, you’re going to live a frustrating sort of life.

Better to laugh about it and move on.

(Originally published on — I eventually moved it here because it’s in English and not even remotely interesting to ESL students.)

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About the Author Daniel

How did I end up in Spain? Why am I still here almost 20 years later? Excellent questions. With no good answer... Anyway, at some point I became a blogger, bestselling author and contributor to Lonely Planet. So there's that. Drop me a line, I'm happy to hear from you.

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