20 September 2005

hurricane names

[Update 9/22/05: more about this subject appears in this AP article.]

This post is about hurricane names -- by now some of this is old news, and I meant to post this a few weeks ago, but haven't polished it til now. The system of naming weather systems is kind of an artificial lexicon, with interesting linguistic, sociological, and cultural aspects.

Within days (perhaps hours) of Katrina's hit, it was decided that the name would be retired as a storm name. My first thought was, aren't all names retired? The answer, actually, is no.

The basic algorithm - determined by the World Meteorological Organization - is that storms are named upon achieving Tropical Storm, the step below Category 1. Storms are given common European first names, assigned in ascending alphabetical order, using the first letter of the spelled name.

The concept of using names is apparently psycholinguistic in origin and started in the 1953. The presumption was that it would be easier to remember "Andrew" than "Hurricane Number 1 of 1992". Names are drawn from a pool of languages, to reflect the multilingual range of nations in the Carribean and Gulf that Atlantic storms effect.

In 1979, the use of male names was introduced; prior to that all storm names were female (uh, I guess they used to think it was cute, but it was also sexist). Now they alternate between girls names and boys names; the first name each season also alternates, so that one year, A, C, E, G and so on are girls names, but are boys names the next. Names beginning with Q, U, X, Y, and Z are not used.

I hadn't ever thought deeply enough about this other than to think, surely there are enough names in English, French, Spanish, Italian, German, and so on not to have to recycle. But they do recycle them every six years: this is the mandated list of storm names from 1996 through 2001, and this is the list of names for 2005 through 2010. The 1999 list is (almost) the same as 2005, 2000 = 2006, 2001 = 2007, 1996 = 2008, 1997 = 2009, and 1998 = 2010. I'm missing the names for 2002-2004, but presumably 2002 = 1996 = 1998, 2003 = 1997 = 2009, and 2004 = 1998 = 2010.

Names are retired or taken off the lists if they become associated with a particularly heinous storm. Katrina easily qualifies. There will also never be another Hurricane Camille, Andrew, or Charley. (Whether heinous hurricane names have an effect on baby naming practices is a different question, but shares a shade of taboo). And will they still serve hurricanes at Pat Obrien's?

OK, so psycholinguistics, gender and language, and taboo so far. Now that Rita (the 17th storm) is on her way, and it's still only September, a new aspect is appearing: what if the hurricane name lexicon is too small? Every year's list of names has 21 items, leaving four more for 2005 (Stan, Tammy, Vince, and Wilma). I wonder if it goes beyond that, will the WMO employ Xavier, Yvette, and Zachary? Then what?


At Tue Sep 20, 05:16:00 PM 2005, Blogger Bob Kennedy said...

Erik Jan van der Torre writes to point out this Slashdot post about the same subject. Evidently they will switch over to Greek letters, starting with Hurricanes Alpha, Beta, and Gamma.


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