Name That Storm! — How Hurricane Handles Happen


Starting in 1954, viewers could tune in and watch “The Secret Storm,” a CBS soap opera, for two decades. But there’s nothing secret about real life storms–hurricanes. Weathermen and the media give us all the details on such storms; they even reveal the names hurricanes are to be given before hurricane status is achieved. How hurricanes get these handles, though, has always been a mystery to me. Let’s get rid of the secrecy and bring the naming plot into the open.

Finding out how hurricanes are named is a timely topic because we are currently in the midst of hurricane season which runs from June 1st until November 30th. What exactly is a hurricane though? It is a tropical cyclone that occurs in the Atlantic Ocean or in the northeast Pacific Ocean.

Although the origin of the word “hurricane” is subject to debate, one explanation is that it derived from the name of the Mayan storm god, Hurakan. Another explanation is that the word comes from the Taino (indigenous people of Florida and the Caribbean) word Hurrican, the Carib Indian God of Evil. My vote is with the latter theory. Anyone who has experienced the fury of a hurricane (think high winds, flooding, property damage, and power loss) can attest to how such a storm is properly linked to evil.

Atlantic hurricanes have been given names for a few hundred years. Hurricanes in the West Indies, for example, were named after the saint’s day on which a hurricane occurred. Thus, the exclamation “Saint Peter is raising holy hell!” could very well have been heard during a storm back then. If another storm occurred on the same saint’s day in a subsequent year, the designation, “the Second,” might be added to the name. Under these circumstances, one being battered by the second  storm might say, “Saint Peter the Second is even worse that Saint Peter was!”

In the early days of meteorology in the United States, hurricanes were denoted with the latitude and longitude of the storm’s point of origin. To no one’s great surprise, this method made discussing a storm difficult because folks were tripped up by the numbers in the location. Without a handy map and map reading skills, people were clueless as to the meaning conveyed by a sequence of numbers. Yelling, “Better batten down the hatches for +25.761681 -80.191788,” is confusing and less than helpful.

Not many good things come out of a war, but World War II led to better way to talk about storms. Military meteorologists working in the South Pacific then began using women’s names for storms. Accordingly, military radio traffic might have included a warning to “Watch out for the Japs and for Betty. They are both headed your way!”

Use of women’s names for quick identification of hurricanes was adopted by the National Hurricane Center in 1953. It became easier to discuss the storms with familiar names rather than number sequences, so public awareness of hurricanes increased. Citizens could remember names better than technical terms.

But how sexist was it to designate destructive storms with only women’s names? Men can wreak a great deal of havoc themselves. The National Hurricane Center broadened its outlook and starting to use men’s names for hurricanes in the late 1970’s. Equal rights for hurricane names! Woo hoo!

The names given to hurricanes are selected by the World Metereological Organization, a specialized agency of the United Nations headquartered in Geneva, Switzerland. Needless to say, WMO staff are located far away from the path of any hurricane whether bearing a male or a female name. An international committee of WMO pre-approves the storm names for each season which are given to storms in alphabetical order. Nevertheless, only 21 names, not 26, are chosen. The letters Q, U, X, Y, and Z are skipped due to the difficulty of finding names beginning with them. But some head-scratching is required as to some of the 2020 names chosen. Dolly? Nana? Teddy? Do these sound like the names of fierce and destructive storms? NAH!

The WMO committee compiling storm names approves six lists of names which are used on a rotating basis. So, the 2020 list of names will be used again in 2026. In even years, a man’s name is given to the first storm; thus, Arthur, a man’s name, was the first 2020 storm. So much for ladies first!

What happens if it’s a really busy hurricane season and all 21 pre-approved names are used before the hurricane season ends? It’s all Greek to me–literally. Once the list of human names is exhausted, storms are then named after the 24 letters of the Greek alphabet. And that’s what is happening here in 2020 with Beta recently dropping in to pay her respects. The only other time in history the Greek alphabet was used was in 2005 when six storms bore Greek letters–Alpha, Beta, Gamma, Delta, Epsilon, and Zeta.

Using Greek letters for hurricane names might broaden public knowledge. Raise your hand if you can recite the Greek alphabet. Not seeing any hands out there. (Yes, I know I can’t see them from my computer, but I bet none are raised regardless.) However, Greek letter names are a bit weird. We might hear, “Nu is getting stronger” or “Oops! Upsilon could cause a lot of destruction!”

Names can be retired if a storm is particularly destructive and costly. It would be insensitive to use them for subsequent storms. Thus, there’s no chance of a future Hurricane Katrina. To date there have been 88 retired storm names. Name retirement requires the WMO committee to chose a replacement name beginning with the same letter as the retired storm.

An as yet unanswered question is how storms will be named if all 24 Greek alphabet letters are used during a hurricane season. No plans have yet been made for that possibility. Let’s hope the situation never happens, but it is 2020; that means it’s prudent to be prepared for any eventuality. We did hit the “W” storm name this year sooner than any other any other “W” storm on record. That does not bode well. Stay tuned–not for “The Secret Storm,” but to see how hurricane handles will be determined post-Omega. 

Just WONDER-ing:

What do you think would be a good name for a hurricane? How should storms be named if the Greek alphabet is exhausted? Would you have a clue where a storm originated if designated by its latitude and longitude?







The Name Game

Names are in the news this month. Well, there are always names in the news, but what I’m referring to is the bestowing of names making headlines. Archie and Psalm won the baby boy name lottery.

In case you have been living under a rock, let me bring you up to speed. Prince Harry and his American wife, Meghan Markle, welcomed a baby boy to the royal family on May 6th. The bouncing bundle of blue joy, seventh in line to the throne right after his dad, was the subject of much pre-birth name speculation. The odds were heavily in favor of traditional names such as Philip, Arthur, and George. Nope. Surprise! Archie he is. Not Archibald, but Archie.

Back over in the former colonies, reality star royalty Kim Kardashian (of “KUWTK” fame) and her musical hubby, Kanye West, also welcomed a blue bundle of joy–child #4 for their growing brood. Their new son entered the world in an untraditional traditional way. A mother physically gave birth to him, but that mother wasn’t Kim; a surrogate was utilized. Despite this untraditional entry into the world, the baby was given a Biblical name, Psalm. Didn’t see that choice on the name radar, I’ll admit.

Whether in jolly old England or in the good ole U.S.A., parents face the daunting task of choosing a name for their offspring. If both mom and dad are in the picture, they have to agree on the name to be given. Mom may have her heart set on the name “Aurora” for her daughter, but dad may veto that choice.

While parents may not know what they should name their child, they are often quite sure of what they DON’T want to name their child. Names which evoke painful or negative feelings or memories are typically eliminated. For that reason Junior is unlikely to be named for mom’s ex-boyfriend. Parents also do not want to saddle their offspring with initials which are impolite or ugly. Adam Samuel Smith would be rejected as a name choice for just such a reason.

When uncertain of a choice, expectant/new parents often seek help. Baby books with jillions of possible names may be purchased, a baby name generator can be utilized on line, and the names of popular figures (fictional or real) may be considered. In the U.K. people often turn to the royal family for inspiration. Unsurprisingly, after the birth of Prince George and of Princess Charlotte, the popularity of those names soared. Since there’s no Archie I’m aware of in the British family tree, Meghan and Harry didn’t  rely on the royal family to provide the source for their son’s name.. Instead they looked to the commoners for inspiration. Archie is a popular baby boy name (in the top 20) in the U.K.

What parents choose for their baby’s name often reveals more about them than about their offspring. Sometimes what is revealed is a bit too much information for me. The names Lexus and Daiquiri might provide a clue as to how Junior came to be. A child bearing the name of a Game of Thrones character reveals his parent’s taste in TV fare. And, yes, such names are surging in popularity. A parent’s lack of knowledge can be made painfully clear by the name chosen for the new bundle of joy. If you don’t know what “meconium” means, then you probably shouldn’t name your child that. (Look it up if you don’t know.)

Naming a child after a family member is a common practice. I am a living example of that technique. I proudly bear the name of my paternal grandmother. When it came to naming my own children, I turned to my Irish heritage. I chose a good Irish name for my son that he shares with an IRA terrorist. Yikes! That made flying fun when Kevin was younger and had his name on some type of government watch list.

Parents have to take into account practical things when choosing a baby’s name. Will the child/his teacher/his friends be able to pronounce his name? Spell it? If there’s doubt, choose another name. Will the child be teased or bullied because of his name? Naming your daughter “Virgin Mary” (yes, I actually met a woman with that legal name) is a great way to ensure your daughter gets a lot of unwanted attention in middle school. And Ben Gay may be rubbed the wrong way by his moniker. Consider whether the name being considered can stand the test of time, i.e., will it make a good name for the child when she’s an adult? Bambi, Barbie, and Princess may seem cute for a tot, but does that name seem fitting for a doctor, lawyer, or president?

In some parts of the world, the task of naming a child is even more difficult–government approval of the name is required. Let’s take Denmark for example. Parents in that country are restricted to selecting a baby name from a list of 7,000 names the government has sanctioned. This list contains 4,000 girls’ names but only 3,000 boys’ names. Girls apparently require more clothes and more names from which to choose.

Some parents want their child’s name to be unique. This desire often runs into a wall with governments who have to approve these names. A creative Chinese couple ran into a proverbial Great Wall of China when they decided that “@” would be a super name for their son. The Chinese government did not agree; in fact, it will not allow symbols or numbers to be used in a name. Guess that means “#1 Son” is also a forbidden choice in China. Similarly, New Zealand has banned use of “4Real” and “V8.” No, really. The New Zealand mom could’ve had a V8 if the government approved. Guess she’ll just have to drink one now.

Unsurprisingly, Germany and New Zealand have each banned the name “Lucifer.” What a shame. Can you imagine a mom at a play group with her child telling the other mothers, “I’m having a devil of a time with my son, Lucifer?” In Japan, children cannot (at least officially) be named “Akuma” which means “devil.”

Even normal sounding names can be shot down by government censors. Take the seemingly innocuous name “Linda.” There will be no Linda’s born to Saudi Arabian parents. Apparently nothing screams Western decadence like the name “Linda.”

Although naming an addition to the family may seem like a fun task, it can be quite complicated. It’s the label your child starts out in life with and carries around with him (often like a millstone around his neck) as he grows up. Obviously parents like the name they chose, or it wouldn’t have been chosen. But will the child like his name? Let’s ask Archie and Psalm in about 16 years.

Just WONDER-ing: Do you like the name your parents gave you? Why was that name chosen? If you have a child, how did you go about selecting his/her given name?