Understanding how the general public uses science terminology during disasters has implications for improving communication between disaster experts and the public and for informing efforts designed to cultivate science literacy. This study presents an analysis of quotes in U.S. newspaper and newswire articles from people who identified the 26 December 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami either as a tidal wave or as a tsunami immediately after the disaster. Quotes from 147 individuals were assigned codes based on their location, nationality, and connection to the event. Individuals coded as experts (n = 16) only uttered tsunami. English-speaking non–tsunami experts in impacted countries were significantly more likely to identify the tsunami as a tidal wave than were individuals in non-impacted countries. Of 31 quoted non–tsunami experts who were in an impacted country, 52% described the disaster as a tidal wave; only 2% of distal non–tsunami experts (n = 100) uttered tidal wave. Of particular note, four of ten quoted tourists from the U.S. who experienced the tsunami uttered tidal wave, whereas none of 27 quoted residents in the U.S. did so. Our results suggest that even if people are aware of appropriate terminology, many individuals will utter more familiar, colloquial, and linguistically simpler words instead of more accurate terminology, especially when experiencing elevated levels of stress, such as during the aftermath of a disaster. The implication for disaster communication efforts is that while a term that was once considered jargon can become widely known and adopted, many people will resort to a more familiar term unless the scientific jargon resonates with their personal, conceptual image of the disaster.

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