Dear Language Nerd,
Merry hurricane season! As I keep a wary eye on Chantal, I’m wondering who names the hurricanes?
You’ve come to the right place, as your humble Language Nerd is a Gulf Coast native. Short answer: the World Meteorological Organization. Long answer: still the World Meteorological Organization, but let’s talk about the why and how, too.
Back in the day, you learned that a hurricane was coming when you opened your door and found a hurricane. But as radio became a bigger deal, ships began to send in messages giving advance warning of big storms they ran into. The warnings they sent were usually just latitude and longitude coordinates, which were useful but extremely dull. This dullness led to occasional mixing-up of numbers and locales, especially when more than one storm was wandering around in the same area.
Different places came up with different ways of keeping track of their storms. Most of them were pretty haphazard, but the West Indies had a solid plan: storms were named for whatever Saint’s Day they were near. This worked pretty well — the only downside was that since major storms tend to cluster in the same months, you could have the same saintly name several times. Puerto Rico, for example, got clobbered by Hurricane San Felipe twice, fifty years apart.
The “give-em-names” plan bopped around in the States for a while, and really took off in the 40s, when army and navy guys started calling big storms by women’s names. The theory is that sailors were naming them after either their girlfriends or their mothers-in-law.* This became the government policy in 1953,** and after protests from women’s groups (“Must we associate massive destruction solely with ladies?”) men’s names were added in 1979.
Currently, there are 11 slices of the world with up-to-date storm-name lists, prepared to hand out names to any storm sprouting up in their jurisdiction. There are slight differences in how these areas decide when a storm has reached its christening (how fast its winds should be going, how much force it has to have, that kind of stuff), but they’re close enough that it’s usually not a big deal. Most regions respect other places’ names – if a storm crops up in the South China seas and gets named, say, Rammasun (from Thailand), it’ll stay named Rammasun even if it takes a hard left and ends up smacking Madagascar. Renaming every hurricane that comes through causes totally avoidable complexity and confusion (looking straight at you, Philippines).
The lists in each region reflect the names common in that region – the central Pacific has Halola and Moke, the southwest Indian Ocean has Qiloane and Vuyane,*** the seas around Australia get Bruce and Trevor. Here in the Deep South, we’re part of the Caribbean Sea, Gulf Coast and North Atlantic region, so we get Caribbean names, Mexican names, and all-Amurrican names such as Chantal. (Alright, Chantal is originally from French, but whatevs, y’all. Also, I’m really enjoying the friendly bonds springing up between name-buddies in the comments on that site.) We have six lists of names, and we use one each year, starting over the seventh year, so the current batch of names will come around again in 2019. In fact, we’ve already used Chantal five times before. If a storm is particularly damaging, however, that name gets retired – we’ll never have another Hurricane Katrina, which is fine by me.
Each year’s list has twenty-one names, in alphabetical order but skipping Q, U, X, Y, or Z. (Seriously, if you can come up with six quality names starting with X, you just send ‘em my way. Better yet, send them to the WMO.) If we run out, we jump over to the Greek alphabet, and start in on Hurricanes Alpha, Beta, and Gamma. This Greek alphabet contingency plan has been used exactly once, in 2005, when we had a completely absurd number of hurricanes around here. (See: Katrina.) And if we never reach the Greek alphabet again, that’s fine by me too.
One final note – the word “hurricane” itself isn’t a worldwide term. They’re “hurricanes” across America, “typhoons” in Southeast Asia, and “cyclones” just about everywhere else.
There. Feeling safer?
The Language Nerd
*On a sorta-related note, in WW2 Allied forces cracked the German codes when they realized that lots of guys were using the same three-letter keywords for their codes every day – usually their girlfriends’ initials. So, you know, don’t just be using your sweetie’s name for stuff all the time, people will figure it out. Unless you are the bad guy, then totally do that.
**After a weird couple years of trying to get people to refer to them with the military-spelling alphabet. Because names are just too easy?
***Both Lesotho names. Other Lesotho contributions include Kuena and Felleng. I had not realized that Lesotho was so rife with sweet names.
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My main reference today is a certain local meteorologist of my acquaintance who wishes to remain anonymous. Secretive fellow, very shy, don’t worry about it.
Other references include the World Meteorological Organization site, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association site, and the Philippine Atmospheric Geophysical and Astronomic Services Administration (those guys). And that last note on codes from Singh’s The Code Book, which I have discussed previously here.