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Ask Mint | How cyclones and hurricanes are named

Ask Mint | How cyclones and hurricanes are named
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First Published: Mon, May 12 2008. 12 33 AM IST

V. R. Narayanaswami
V. R. Narayanaswami
Updated: Mon, May 12 2008. 12 33 AM IST
V. R. Narayanaswami
News reports have been talking of the devastation caused by Cyclone Nargis in Myanmar. It left me wondering why, of all things, a cyclone should share its name with that true-blue superstar of old Indian cinema.
Further probe into the subject showed me that the custom of giving women’s names to cyclones began in Australia at the close of the 19th century. This became official when the National Weather Service of America began to use women’s names while tracking and observing storms. A quarter of a century later, men’s names, too, began to be used.
Before the system of naming hurricanes was adopted, the practice was to name them after the location where they raged. For example, you could speak about a cyclone 900km south south-west of Chittagong, or you could describe the location in terms of latitude and longitude. But these figures had to be changed when the cyclone moved. Using personal names, such as Nargis, also helps when more than one storm occurs in the same region. While Nargis was active in the Indian Ocean, there were two other storms in the vicinity, Rosie and Durga, which, fortunately, were not close to any land mass.
Though it is tempting to imagine that some aggrieved male was naming storms thus to spite his persecutrix, the fact is that there is a much more serious intent behind such naming. Official naming of tropical cyclones and hurricanes began in 1953. In the aftermath of a storm or hurricane, there can be a great deal of negotiation over insurance claims and legal issues related to the destruction to life and property. A name can more easily be handled than longitude and latitude as data or even direction and distance from a coastal town.
Tropical cyclones that rage in the Atlantic Ocean, down to the Caribbean Sea and the Gulf of Mexico, and in the Pacific Ocean east of the international date line are called hurricanes. Those that rage in the northern Pacific Ocean, west of the date line, are called typhoons, from their Chinese name. A storm becomes a hurricane or typhoon when its wind speed reaches 120km per hour.
From 1979, men’s names have been used in alternation with women’s names. For each year, a list of names is prepared, and alphabetically arranged. One name is included for each letter of the alphabet. The letters Q, U, X, Y and Z are not used. Take the names for the current year. The first five names for 2008 are Arthur, Bertha, Cesar, Dolly and Edouard. Six lists have been prepared, and these are rotated. In other words, the list that was used in 2002 will be used again in 2008.
Some of the names hardly seem appropriate to signify the wild fury of what Alfred Tennyson calls “nature red in tooth and claw”. Nargis is a beautiful name in Arabic and Persian, and means flower. It is often considered a synonym of narcissus. The soft and delicate syllables of “Melissa” can hardly suggest the fury of a typhoon. Melissa itself means “honeybee” in Greek, and “red rose” in Persian. Katrina (2005) is regarded as the strongest tropical cyclone ever to strike the US mainland. The amount of damage came to $75 billion (Rs3.13 trillion), and more than 1,330 people were killed. The horrifying tragedy almost spelt nemesis for the president, who came under a barrage of blame for not rising to the occasion. “Katrina” means pure, and is seen as Kate, Catherine, Kareena and Karen, the last being one of the most popular names for girls. Among the names given by Thailand to storms in the neighbourhood are Meghla and Hanuman.
One of the interesting conventions that arose in hurricane history is the retiring of names. If a hurricane causes extensive damage, the country affected by the storm can ask for retirement of the name. This means that the name cannot be used for at least 10 years. “Katrina” has been retired, and is being replaced by Katia. Interestingly, the first three hurricanes with men’s names—Bob, David and Frederic—were so severe that the names were retired.
Countries of the western Pacific came up their own list of names prepared by the 14 nations that are in the typhoon belt. These names weren’t just personal first names: They included names of animals, flowers and astrological signs.
We began with Nargis, and will now end with Nana. The 19th hurricane in the Atlantic this year will be named Nana. Here, at last, I find a name that matches the event. Novelist Emile Zola’s Nana, in her career of vice and immorality, destroyed every man who crossed her path. At least three men were financially ruined. Two men, Vandeuvres and George Hugon, committed suicide. Another suitor, Philippe, landed in prison when he stole money from the army for Nana. Foucarmont lost everything and went to perish in the China seas. Let us hope that Hurricane Nana, when it comes later in 2008, will be like an angry goddess propitiated and will not demolish everything in sight.
V.R. Narayanaswami, a former professor of English, has written several books and articles on the usage of the language. He will look at the peculiarities of business and popular English usage in his fortnightly column.
Comments can be sent to plainspeaking@livemint.com
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First Published: Mon, May 12 2008. 12 33 AM IST
More Topics: Hurricane | Cyclone | Nargis | Weather | Katrina |