12/11/2020

What’s In A (Hurricane) Name?

7:12 minutes

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This year was the most active Atlantic hurricane season on record—we saw a whopping 30 named storms. In fact, there were so many storms that we exhausted the list of predetermined names for the season, and had to resort to using the Greek alphabet. The most recent hurricane (for now), was Hurricane Iota.

But why do we name hurricanes in the first place? The practice of naming storms goes back to the 19th century, and it was a bumpy ride to land on the system we use today. 

Science Diction host Johanna Mayer tells the story of a meteorologist in Australia, a novel, and a second-wave feminist from Florida—and how they brought us hurricane names.


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Segment Guests

Johanna Mayer

Johanna Mayer is a podcast producer and hosts Science Diction from Science Friday. When she’s not working, she’s probably baking a fruit pie. Cherry’s her specialty, but she whips up a mean rhubarb streusel as well.

Segment Transcript

JOHN DANKOSKY: It’s been an unusual year, to say the least, and hurricane season is no exception. This has been the most active Atlantic hurricane season on record. Yeah, 30 named storms, so many storms, in fact, that we used up the entire list of names that the World Meteorological Organization put out for the year. So we had to start using the Greek alphabet. The last named storm, at least for now was, Hurricane Iota.

But why do we name hurricanes in the first place? Here to tell us is Johanna Mayer host of Science Diction, a podcast about words and science history. Hi there, Johanna.

JOHANNA MAYER: Hey, John.

JOHN DANKOSKY: So let’s start here. Why do we name hurricanes but not things like tornadoes or earthquakes?

JOHANNA MAYER: Honestly, it’s just mainly for ease of talking about them and being able to keep track if there are multiple storms happening in the same region. But we had also been thinking a lot about how hurricanes get named, and we also got this Vox pop from a listener.

LISTENER: No, there’s never been one with my name, and it pains me deeply. Why can’t we have an Arnold hurricane? Why?

[CHUCKLING]

JOHANNA MAYER: So I totally empathize with Arnold. There’s never been a hurricane Johanna either. The World Meteorological Organization has final say over this, and they’re actually kind of a lot of rules about what you can and can’t name a hurricane.

So a name cannot have any larger political significance. The names have to be culturally sensitive to the languages spoken in the region, and they also claim that they’re not named after specific people. So I’m very sorry to break it to you, Arnold. We can’t pull the strings.

JOHN DANKOSKY: I feel so bad for Arnold. You know, of course, I think that there have been a couple hurricane Johns and a hurricane Johnny, so I guess I’ve been pretty lucky.

JOHANNA MAYER: So you’re in luck. Yeah.

JOHN DANKOSKY: I suppose. So did we always do this? Did we always name hurricanes?

JOHANNA MAYER: No. No. So for a brief unfortunate period of time, we called hurricanes after the longitude and latitude where they began, so that was a mouthful. That did not work.

The first guy that really starts naming storms was a guy named Clement Wragge. And he was a meteorologist in Australia back in the 1800s. And he’s really the first guy who starts doing this honestly probably for his own fun and amusement.

He named storms after all sorts of things. He would give them names of local Tahitian women. He called them after Roman gods for a period of time, and eventually he started naming them after politicians. And the politicians did not care for that, so Clement eventually got kicked out of meteorology because he got on their bad side.

JOHN DANKOSKY: Oh, wow. That’s always a bad idea to get politicians on your bad side.

JOHANNA MAYER: Yeah, not a good order of events.

JOHN DANKOSKY: So then what happened to his naming system when he got fired?

JOHANNA MAYER: Well, it went away for a little bit. But then it came back, and this was the most surprising thing about this whole story to me is that the thing that brought it back was actually a book. And it was a novel called Storm. Maybe you’ve heard of it. It was really popular for a period of time, but it was about a giant storm and a meteorologist who is tracking it.

And the author of this book had done a ton of research leading up to it, and he had come across Clement Wragge and his naming system from back in the day. So in the book, a meteorologist decides to do what Clement did, and he names the storm.

And the thing is it just so happened that this book came out in the thick of World War II, and it made it into these little entertainment kits that they sent out to soldiers who were stationed in the Pacific. And the military informally started naming storms after their wives and their girlfriends with female names, and that just eventually became the official naming system was to name storms after females.

JOHN DANKOSKY: So it just happened because of that. It’s amazing that that’s actually how we arrived at this. I just want to stop and say this is Science Friday. I’m John Dankosky, and I’m talking with Johanna Mayer, the host of Science Diction, about the word hurricanes.

So hurricanes had female names at first, this kind of dubious history here. Now they rotate between traditionally male and female names right?

JOHANNA MAYER: Yes. But it was a long road to getting there, John. So United States, 1970s, we were in the thick of second wave feminism. There was a larger national focus on language at that point like the word Ms. was had just been coined.

So one woman decided to really take out this hurricane sexism cause, and her name was Roxcy Bolton. And she did not care for the way that the media would talk about these storms.

ROXCY BOLTON: Carol destroyed Louisiana or whatever. It was always a hard-driving headline with a woman’s name. And I didn’t like that one durn bit.

JOHANNA MAYER: That is Roxcy. She died in 2017, and this is tape from an oral history from the Florida State Library and Archives. And Roxcy fought and she fought and she fought to get this all-female naming system changed.

She went to conferences on hurricanes to argue. She sent cease and desist letters. And eventually the World Meteorological Organization incorporated traditionally male names into the roster as well. And we’ve had rotating male and female names ever since, equally disparaging names to both genders.

JOHN DANKOSKY: What’s so interesting about that is she had to fight for such a long time, and it just seemed like such an obvious solution, right, just name them after men and women. But, no, this actually took a very long time.

JOHANNA MAYER: She had suggested naming them after birds at one point. She also suggested naming them after senators, which if you remember the Clement Wragge story is probably good that that didn’t actually come to fruition.

JOHN DANKOSKY: Well, let’s get to the word hurricane itself. Where did that come from?

JOHANNA MAYER: So hurricane comes from the Spanish word huracan, which likely comes in turn from a really similar word from the Taino people who are indigenous to the Caribbean. So I talked to someone named Christina Gonzalez about this. She’s getting her doctorate in anthropology. She’s Taino herself. And she said that when Christopher Columbus and the conquistadors arrived, they had just never seen a hurricane before.

CHRISTINA GONZALEZ: So they had no terms for it. So naturally they adopted the term that was used by the local people on the islands, which is huracan.

JOHANNA MAYER: So you can hear that word, that Taino word, is almost perfectly preserved today.

JOHN DANKOSKY: That’s wonderful. So when we say the word hurricane, we’re speaking a little bit of Taino. I love it. Johanna, the Science Diction team made a full episode about this. Where can people hear it?

JOHANNA MAYER: You can subscribe to Science Diction wherever you get your podcasts.

JOHN DANKOSKY: The podcast, of course, is called Science Diction. Thanks so much, Johanna Mayer, for sharing the story with us.

JOHANNA MAYER: Thanks, John.

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Meet the Producers and Host

About Alexa Lim

Alexa Lim is a senior producer for Science Friday. Her favorite stories involve space, sound, and strange animal discoveries.

About John Dankosky

John Dankosky works with the radio team to create our weekly show, and is helping to build our State of Science Reporting Network. He’s also been a long-time guest host on Science Friday. He and his wife have four cats, thousands of bees, and a yoga studio in the sleepy Northwest hills of Connecticut. 

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