Arlene, Cindy, Don, Emily, Franklin, Gert, Idalia, Nigel.
These are some of the named storms — tropical storms and hurricanes — so far in the 2023 Atlantic hurricane season, which occurs June 1st to November 30th every year.
This year, in particular, the names caught my eye. Maybe it’s because we’re seeing more than usual in the news due to the “above-normal level of activity,” according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). Or maybe it’s because I’m fortunate to live in a (so far) hurricane-free part of the country and have the luxury to ponder these things.
Or just maybe it’s because I’m a namer, so names make me curious…especially ones like Gert. (Great brand name up for grabs?) So, I did some digging into the history of hurricane nomenclature, or the system of naming in this field. What I found was a dark and stormy tale, including Greek mythology, colonialism, sexism, and political revenge.
“Why Do Hurricanes Have Names?”
This is the question asked by Jennie Cohen in her excellent article on History.com. Furthermore, she asks, “Why do we bestow people’s names on volatile storms in the first place?”
Of all the sources I scoured, I thought this article was hard to beat. It’s succinct, paints a clear picture, and is packed with facts. So, I relay it to you here, with some added links to fascinating tidbits:
For as long as people have been tracking and reporting hurricanes, also known as tropical cyclones, they’ve been struggling to find ways to identify them. Until well into the 20th century, newspapers and forecasters in the United States devised names for storms that referenced their time period, geographic location or intensity; hence, the Great Hurricane of 1722, the Galveston Storm of 1900, the Labor Day Hurricane of 1935 and the Big Blow of 1913. Meanwhile, hurricanes in the tempestuous West Indies were named for the Catholic saint’s days on which they made landfall.
The pioneering Australian weatherman Clement Wragge began assigning names to tropical cyclones in the late 19th century, initially using the letters of the Greek alphabet and characters from Greek and Roman mythology. An eccentric and playful fellow, he later turned to the names of local politicians he particularly disliked; as a result, he was able to state in public forecasts that the officials were “causing great distress” or “wandering aimlessly about the Pacific.” Needless to say, Wragge’s subtly hostile approach didn’t take the meteorology profession by storm.
During World War II, U.S. Air Force and Navy meteorologists plotting storms over the Pacific needed a better way to denote hurricanes while analyzing weather maps. Many began paying tribute to their wives and girlfriends back home by naming tropical cyclones after them. In 1945 the newly formed National Weather Bureau—later the National Weather Service—introduced a system based on the military phonetic alphabet, but by 1953 the options had been exhausted. The next year, the bureau embraced forecasters’ informal practice of giving hurricanes women’s names. Because America led the world in weather tracking technology at the time, many other countries adopted the new nomenclature.
By the 1960s, some feminists began taking issue with the gendered naming convention. Most vocal among them was a National Organization for Women member from the Miami area named Roxcy Bolton, whose many accomplishments throughout a lifetime of activism include founding women’s shelters and rape crisis centers, helping to end sexist advertising, achieving maternity leave for flight attendants and eradicating all-male dining rooms in Florida restaurants. In the early 1970s Bolton chided the National Weather Service for their hurricane naming system, declaring, “Women are not disasters, destroying life and communities and leaving a lasting and devastating effect.” Perhaps taking a cue from Clement Wragge, she recommended senators—who, she said, “delight in having things named after them”—as more appropriate namesakes for storms.
In 1979, the National Weather Service and the World Meteorological Association finally switched to an alternating inventory of both men’s and women’s names. (Bolton’s senator-based plan was rejected, however, as was her proposal to replace the word “hurricane”—which she thought sounded too close to “her-icane”—with “him-icane.”) In recent years, the lists of names, which are predetermined and rotate every six years, have been further diversified to reflect the many regions where tropical cyclones strike. Names of devastating storms with major loss of life and economic impact, such as Katrina in 2005 and Andrew in 1992, are permanently retired.
What were hurricanes called before they had names?
In 2022, Rivka Galchen wrote a great article in The New Yorker called How Hurricanes Get Their Names. She takes us back in time (well before the 19th century) to shed some light on early wisdom and mythology about hurricanes:
The etymology of “hurricane” itself is considerably more august than the next-door-neighbor names of individual hurricanes. In the tradition of the Tainos, who were native to the Caribbean, the earth, the sky, and the stars were created by the goddess Atabei. She had two sons. One created the sun, the moon, the plants, and the animals. The other, jealous of his brother’s creations, began to destroy them with a powerful wind. The jealous brother adopted the name Jurakan. (The story in some ways resembles that of Cain and Abel.) Depictions of the god show a face with two arms emerging from the head in different curves, forming an “S,” suggesting that the Tainos may already have known what Western civilization only surmised in the middle of the nineteenth century—that hurricane winds rotate.
“Kamikaze” is an awesome word—it signifies a wind that is divine. In medieval Japan, the term “kamikaze” was used to refer to typhoons. (Hurricanes and typhoons are equivalent in all ways save geography: hurricanes are creatures of warm waters east of the International Date Line, and typhoons are the same weather phenomenon in warm waters to the west of it. Because the northeast Pacific waters are so vast, typhoons tend to be stronger.) The idea that a typhoon was a divine wind emerged in the thirteenth century, after two uncannily timed storms. In October, 1274, Kublai Khan, along with some forty thousand sailing troops, prepared to invade Japan, which was outnumbered and outgunned; then a typhoon hit, drowning a third of the invaders. Seven years later, Khan returned, this time with a hundred and forty thousand men; again, a typhoon decided the outcome in favor of the Japanese. The Khan made it out safely, but remains of the ships that carried tens of thousands of men are still found at the bottom of the sea today. What the Khan named that tropical cyclone is, so far as I know, lost to us.
A Hundred-Handed Monster
Yet another hurricane myth comes from the ancient Greeks. They believed hurricanes were punishment from the gods. And here’s how Farmers’ Almanac explains the legend:
According to myth, hurricanes were caused by the Hecatonchires, three monstrous gods born from the union of Uranus, the sky god, and Gaia, the Earth goddess. The brothers, named Briareus, Cottus, and Gyges, each had fifty heads and one hundred hands. Upon seeing then, Uranus was horrified and cast them into Tartarus, a bleak underworld filled with chaos and despair. The brothers were eventually rescued from their torment by Zeus, who enlisted them in his battle against the Titans. The Hecatonchires overwhelmed the Titans by raining stones upon them with their hundred hands, and were rewarded with palaces beneath the waters – Cottus and Gyges in the River Okeanos and Briareus beneath the Aegean Sea – and assigned to release the punishing storms of Tartarus upon mortals at the command of the other gods.
Hurricanes as part of modern cultural metaphor
With all of the myth, legend, and history behind this worldwide weather phenomena, it’s little wonder that it’s captured our emotions and imaginations. Singers and songwriters perhaps most of all. For instance, music in a variety of genres feature hurricanes as a metaphor for “storm of emotions” or “a destructive force.”
There are several websites that list songs about hurricanes. Here’s one called “20 Songs About Hurricanes” on Musical Mum that I thought was fairly comprehensive and represented a variety of music genres. These are a few featured songs:
- “Rock You Like A Hurricane” by Scorpions
- “Hurricane Eye” by Paul Simon
- “Like A Hurricane” by Neil Young
- “Hurricane Drunk” by Florence and the Machine
- “After the Hurricane” by Jazmine Sullivan
- “Hurricane” by Bob Dylan (not on the aforementioned list, but worth highlighting)
And my personal favorite from this musical storm: “Hurricane” by Charles Bradley. Enjoy.
It’s mind boggling to think about the fact that heat and air pressure has been the cause of storied devastation and destruction since ancient times. Names have risen from myth, the Greek alphabet and literal times and places to solely women’s names and now to an organized nomenclature of rotating names by gender.
Could it be that hurricanes are the longest and most storied “named entity” on our planet?
Lastly, NOAA forecasts 14 to 21 storms this year, with 6 to 11 potentially becoming hurricanes. So, stay tuned for more names. And stay safe out there.