The noun disaster (1590s) comes from the French désastre (1560s), from the Italian
disastro, which derives from dis- (ill) and astro (star), literally
“ill-starred”; the term astro results from the Latin astrum, which in turn arises from
the Greek astron (Harper, 2001).
The United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction (UNDRR, formerly UNISDR) defines a disaster as “a
serious disruption of the functioning of a community or a society at any scale due to hazardous events
interacting with conditions of exposure, vulnerability and capacity, leading to one or more of the
following: human, material, economic and environmental losses and impacts” (UNDRR, 2020). Furthermore,
according to the World Bank “unnatural disasters are deaths and damages that result from human acts of
omission and commission” (World Bank–United Nations, 2010). These statements clarify that disasters are
the result of a complex interaction between hazardous events (e.g., earthquakes) and the vulnerability of
the social system, due to human choices. Therefore, the adjective “natural” misrepresents the
formal meaning of “disaster.”
The unnatural character of disasters has been dealt with at least since the mid-eighteenth century after
the great 1755 Lisbon earthquake and downward through the discussion of the scientific community that
began in the 1930s through the 1970s, and is still active today (Ball, 1975; Gaillard et al., 2007; Gould
et al., 2016).
Nonetheless, the expression “natural disasters” is still used by politicians, media, international
organizations, and scientists posing possible concrete implications, such as lowering the sense of human
responsibility (Chmutina and von Meding, 2019) and influencing people to believe that (“natural”)
disasters are ineluctable. That might adversely affect disaster preparedness. However, online initiatives
and campaigns try to discourage the use of this expression (“#NoNaturalDisasters” web or Twitter
campaigns). Additionally, the UNISDR banned the terminology from official communications in 2018 (Chmutina
and von Meding, 2019).
Is it possible to infer when and how this (improper) lexicon developed? To try to answer this question,
we asked for help from culturomics, a form of computational lexicology that studies human culture and
human behavior based on the analysis of large digital data sets resulting from the collection,
digitization, and indexing of a huge amount of words contained in printed works. We used the Ngram Viewer
search engine, the free lexicometric tool developed by a team at Google Books (Michel et al., 2010).
Google Ngram Viewer (GNV): Features and Shortcomings
GNV allows anyone to make queries about the frequency and evolution of terms in several languages over
time, based on the world’s most comprehensive index of books that is Google Books. However, the quality of
the data set only becomes adequately large to be used for scientific purposes by the year 1800 (Michel et
GNV shows the frequency of words or phrases (n-grams) in a graph. A “1 g” is defined as a string of
characters uninterrupted by a space and an n-gram as a sequence of 1 g. Therefore, the x-axis of
GNV displays the year in which books from the selected language corpus were published, the y-axis
represents the frequency with which GNV graphs the percentage of each word in each year by dividing the
number of instances of the word in a particular year by the total number of words in that year (Michel et
al., 2010). However, some shortcomings have to be considered, such as errors related to the optical
scanning and metadata (e.g., date), unsystematic material, and doubles.
Application to “natural disaster(s)”
We searched for a 2 g natural disaster(s) [ND(s)] in the American English (2019) corpus from
1900 to 2019. Data was downloaded and analyzed on 9 Oct. 2021. Before 1900, GNV only provides a few
results, most of which have inconsistent metadata. The oldest book is a sermon published in 1724.
Figure 1 shows that the two bi-grams begin to emerge since the 1930s and progressively increase over the
entire period, especially NDs, even if with significant rises and falls. For NDs, the lowest peak is in
the second half of the 1940s; the highest peak is in the second half of the first decade of the 2000s.
Overall, the frequency of bi-gram(s) has decreased over the past decade and beyond.
Frequency of “natural disaster(s)” (NDs) over time (smoothing is zero). The graph also shows the five
periods in which Google Ngram Viewer (GNV) splits the NDs trend (modified from GNV). I—1900–1967;
II—1968–2006; III—2007–2010; IV—2011–2014; V—2015–2019.
The search results related to NDs were also analyzed to identify both the typology and authors of the
books as well as the main topic of each document. The analysis was performed for each of the five periods
in which GNV automatically groups the results: 1900–1967 (I period, includes the lowest peak), 1968–2006
(II, highest peak), 2007–2010 (III), 2011–2014 (IV), and 2015–2019 (V) (Fig. 1).
In the first time window (1900–1967), the results mostly (~60%) refer to official publications of
international organizations (e.g., United Nations and its specialized agencies, such as UNESCO),
institutions, different and short-lived U.S. civil defense agencies, documents of the legislative bodies
of the U.S. (the Senate and the House of Representatives), and the related commissions still active or
defunct, documents of the U.S. federal departments or the U.S. State Department, and codes of laws of both
the U.S. and individual states.
The subject matter of these publications embraces annual statistics of disasters and their consequences
in epidemiological, social, and economic terms; disaster relief in civil and agricultural sectors;
disaster recovery and disaster prevention actions; and organization of civil defense systems. Among the
remaining search results, we found magazines and articles published in scientific journals and conference
proceedings as well as books whose topics are mainly history, geography, economy, and religion.
In the second period (1968–2006), the results include official publications and proceedings of
conferences organized by institutions, governmental bodies or agencies, both U.S. and international
organizations and associations, and so on. Again, among the issues of these publications there are
statistics of disasters and their consequences. These items cover ~17% of the period, with a clear
reduction compared to the first period. Indeed, most documents are books written by individual or multiple
authors covering many areas such as natural science, philosophy, and religion. In the third period
(2007–2010) and in the fourth and fifth periods (2011–2019), documents of official bodies and
international organizations decrease further, being clearly a minority (between 4% and 7%) once compared
to books, whose subjects are similar to those of the second period.
Culturomics can assist us in identifying the change in lexicon over time. Research points out that the
terminology “natural disaster(s)” appears in books published in English in the U.S. since the 1930s, with
an increase over time. Furthermore, the expression “natural disasters” seems to have had origin from
institutions, bodies with public function, and international organizations. From the 1930s on, the
terminology expanded, gaining importance in the lexicon of different fields of knowledge in which official
documents (e.g., disaster statistics) probably played an important role as direct sources of disaster
information. Over the past decade and beyond, the frequency of the expression has decreased, probably
influenced by the growing skepticism about the (mis)use of the terminology and the long wave of reduced
use of the phrase in official documents since the 1970s.
However, as the literature suggests (e.g., Brandt, 2018), the limitations of GNV imply that these
findings have to be considered as a starting point of further research and not a landing point. Therefore,
future research should involve other disciplines of social sciences and humanities, including business and
administration (e.g., public and institutional administration, insurance) and the history of institutions.
- Ball, N., 1975, The myth of natural disasters: The Ecologist, v. 5, no. 10, p. 368–369.
- Brandt, D.S., 2018, Charting the geosciences with Google Ngram Viewer: GSA Today, v. 28, no. 5, p.
- Chmutina, K., and von Meding, J.A., 2019, Dilemma of language: “Natural disasters” in academic
literature: International Journal of Disaster Risk Science, no. 10, p. 283–292,
- Gaillard, J.C., Liamzon, C.C., and Villanueva, J.D., 2007, ‘Natural’ disaster? A retrospect into the
causes of the late-2004 typhoon disaster in Eastern Luzon, Philippines: Environmental Hazards, v. 7, no.
4, p. 257–270, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.envhaz.2006.11.002.
- Gould, K.A., Garcia, M.M., and Remes, J.A.C., 2016, Beyond “natural-disasters-are-not-natural”: The
work of state and nature after the 2010 earthquake in Chile: Journal of Political Ecology, v. 23, p.
- Harper, D., 2001, Etymology Dictionary: https://www.etymonline.com (accessed 10 Oct. 2022).
- Michel, J.B., Shen, Y.K, Presser Aiden, A., Veres, A., Gray, M.K., Brockman, W., The Google Books
Team, Pickett, J.P., Hoiberg, D., Clancy, D., Norvig, P., Orwant, J., Pinker, S., Nowak, M.A., and
Lieberman Aiden, E., 2010, Quantitative analysis of culture using millions of digitized books: Science,
v. 331, p. 176–182, https://doi.org/10.1126/science.1199644.
- UNDRR, 2020, Terminology: https://www.undrr.org/terminology (accessed 10 Oct. 2022).
- World Bank–United Nations, 2010, Natural Hazards, UnNatural Disasters: The Economics of Effective
Prevention: https://openknowledge.worldbank.org/handle/10986/2512 (accessed 28 Oct. 2022).
Manuscript received 8 Jan. 2022.
Revised manuscript received 16 Nov. 2022.
Manuscript accepted 27 Nov. 2022.
Posted 22 Dec. 2022.
© 2022, The Geological Society of America. CC-BY-NC.