Question: Many years ago a good friend shared with me that he is the person who is credited with coining the term “vog” (volcanic smog). He had an old newspaper clipping that said so. Now that the term has become so ubiquitous that it even has a Wikipedia entry, is it possible to credit him? Are you able to confirm that “Buddy” Watanabe, who was born on Molokai and who worked for Kaiser Permanente on Oahu for years, indeed invented the word “vog”?
Answer: It’s probably not 100 percent possible to pinpoint when and who coined the word, but in the absence of any other documentation, the newspaper clipping credits Teruo “Buddy” Watanabe with suggesting the term nearly five decades ago.
Buddy died in 2009 at the age of 82. But we were able to contact his brother, Mitsuo, of Molokai, who remembered the clipping. He graciously offered to search for it, finding it among his brother’s belongings.
He said Buddy kept a book in which he jotted down jokes, observations, names of friends, etc. Among the pages was an “In One Ear” column by the late Honolulu Advertiser columnist Bob Krauss, with this last item:
“Buddy Watanabe has written from Waiakoa on Maui with what may be a valuable addition to Hawaiianess. He says, ‘I’ve heard the atmospheric condition created by the volcano in Puna called haze, smog, smoke and fumes, etc. Los Angeles has its smog and San Francisco has its fog. Since what we have in Hawaii is created by the Puna volcano, why not make up a new word and simplify things and call it what nobody else has … VOG!’”
There’s no date, but Buddy had written at the top, “Year 1965.” We do not have access to Advertiser archives, but the column references KONA-TV, which changed its call letters to KHON-TV in 1965.
Apparently, it would be years before the term became popularized.
Many sources vaguely refer to vog as being “locally coined” on the Big Island, but officials of neither Hawaii Volcanoes National Park nor the U.S. Geological Survey’s Hawaiian Volcano Observatory said they knew where it came from.
Before we saw the Krauss column, we contacted former Hawaii County Mayor Harry Kim, the island’s director of civil defense from 1976 to 2000.
Kim consulted Arnold Okamura, who retired in 2003 after more than 42 years with Hawaiian Volcano Observatory, “and we remembered kind of the same thing.”
They credit Arnold’s brother Reginald “Reggie” Okamura, former chief of operations of Hawaiian Volcano Observatory who died in 1999, with coming up with “vog.”
As Kim tells it, a group was “just talking story” in the mid-1980s when Kilauea, which has been continuously erupting since 1983, was active and vog became “an issue.”
“We were joking about, ‘Let’s make it rhyme with smog and fog and stuff like that,’” he recalls. “And the best we can remember is that some people said, ‘That’s a good idea,’ and the best we can remember is that Reggie Okamura was the one that came up with it.”
Kim is more certain where the term “laze” originated: “I remember I coined the term ‘laze,’ (which refers to) fumes created by lava hitting the ocean.”
It was around 1986-87, and Big Islanders were experiencing health concerns because of lava entering the ocean, creating a hydrochloric acid mist.
As civil defense chief, Kim was frequently called out to the field, “and my skin was getting burned every time I would go down there. … I kept telling the Department of Health I need to have this assessed. This was not just steam. … This was a new phenomenon.”