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The Name of the Wind

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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With everybody staring down their storm-related doom, this might be an appropriate time for a somewhat less-portentous Sandy sidelight.

I’m talking about names. Okay, there’s Frankenstorm, which apparently came from NOAA and has been used by everybody and is just kind of sad. Then there’s Snor’eastercane, which I have seen in the Atlantic and at least has going for it that it’s new. And the dependably delightful Jess Zimmerman at Grist has coined Frankenstormzillapocalypse.

But whether you like these particular clever storm names or not (there’s already been a story about what the name you like best says about you), it’s hard to dispute one thing: Giving storms names was a scientific stroke of genius.

And, amazingly, it started only in 1950, formalizing a convention that goes back only a few years previously, to the 1941 publication of Storm, by George Stewart (Keith C. Heidorn, The Weather Doctor, calls it “the best weather novel ever written,” which is only a little like calling it the best Cleveland football team of the decade).  I have read Storm, and I can tell you it’s actually a wonderful book, especially for scientists. Because so much of science is about the practice of slapping names on things – think of Linneaus, of Mendeleev, of Luke Howard.

Here’s the story. In Storm, Stewart has a character named only “the junior meteorologist.” (The people don’t get names in this book – only the storm does; it’s not Frankenstormzillapocalypse, but it’s clever, yes?) The junior meteorologist makes the thoroughly sensible point that “each storm was really an individual and that he could more easily say (to himself, of course) ‘Antonia’ than ‘the low-pressure center which was yesterday in Latitude 175 east, Longitude 42 north.’ ” The Junior Meteorologist called the book’s titular storm “Maria.” (I give a bit more detail in this piece I wrote some years ago on this topic for the Times, but yes: it’s long-I Ma-RYE-a, and yes, that’s where the song came from.) Though gigantic storms had been named before – think of the Great September Gale of 1815 or the Long Island Express of 1938 – most storms were just … storms. Then came Stewart’s book.

According to this piece by Heidorn, the book apparently led to servicemen taking the book with them to World War II, which led to U.S. Navy meteorologists adopting the naming habit. By 1950 U.S. meteorologists were using the “abel-baker-charley” military alphabet, and in 1953 they switched to female names.  People noticed that was sexist in 1979 and added men to the mix. It’s wonderful that a book with such an utterly generic name — Storm — has created a tradition that has bred such linguistic creativity.

Anyhow. Just a little something for you to read about while filling the bathtub with emergency water and waiting for the electricity to flicker and then die. Quick – press “print.” I’ll see you after. In the meantime, you can begin thinking of names for the aftermath.

 

 

Scott Huler About the Author: A writer who commonly explores science, culture, and the relationship between the two. Follow on Twitter @huler.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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