The word tornado is an altered form of the Spanish word tronada, which means "thunderstorm". This in turn was taken from the Latin tonare, meaning "to thunder". It most likely reached its present form through a combination of the Spanish tronada and tornar ("to turn"); however, this may be a folk etymology. A tornado is also commonly referred to as a "twister", and is also sometimes referred to by the old-fashioned colloquial term cyclone. The term "cyclone" is used as a synonym for "tornado" in the often-aired 1939 film, The Wizard of Oz. The term "twister" is also used in that film, along with being the title of the 1996 tornado-related film Twister.
A tornado is "a violently rotating column of air, in contact with the ground, either pendant from a cumuliform cloud or underneath a cumuliform cloud, and often (but not always) visible as a funnel cloud". For a vortex to be classified as a tornado, it must be in contact with both the ground and the cloud base. Scientists have not yet created a complete definition of the word; for example, there is disagreement as to whether separate touchdowns of the same funnel constitute separate tornadoes. Tornado refers to the vortex of wind, not the condensation cloud.
A tornado is not necessarily visible; however, the intense low pressure caused by the high wind speeds (as described by Bernoulli's principle) and rapid rotation (due to cyclostrophic balance) usually causes water vapor in the air to become visible as a funnel cloud or condensation funnel.
There is some disagreement over the definition of funnel cloud and condensation funnel. According to the Glossary of Meteorology, a funnel cloud is any rotating cloud pendant from a cumulus or cumulonimbus, and thus most tornadoes are included under this definition. Among many meteorologists, the funnel cloud term is strictly defined as a rotating cloud which is not associated with strong winds at the surface, and condensation funnel is a broad term for any rotating cloud below a cumuliform cloud.
Tornadoes often begin as funnel clouds with no associated strong winds at the surface, although not all evolve into a tornado. However, many tornadoes are preceded by a funnel cloud. Most tornadoes produce strong winds at the surface while the visible funnel is still above the ground, so it is difficult to discern the difference between a funnel cloud and a tornado from a distance.