Ok, quick question: What do you know about Typhoon Yolanda? Nothing, right? Guess what -- it just went by. I'll explain, but first: everyone is still working hard to help the people of the Philippines recover from Typhoon Haiyan (here's a collection of places through which you can help), as well we should. So if that's on your list of things to do, go ahead and do that. It's more important than this blog.
Okay. Now: storm names. Before Haiyan came along, you and everybody else were watching this video making merciless -- and richly deserved -- ridicule of the James Inhofes of this world and their ilk, suggesting storms be named after them. Then here came Haiyan, though if you paid much attention to coverage of Haiyan, you may have noticed that Haiyan was called Yolanda by the people of the Phillipines. Confusing, yeah?
Here's the deal. This whole business of naming storms was actually adopted by the United States National Weather Service in 1953, but it really got its start in 1941, in a novel called Storm, in which the unnamed protagonist decides to name a storm he's watching: "He justified the sentimental vagary by explaining mentally 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.'" Though there had been storm names before -- the Long Island Express of 1938, for example -- that got things going for real. Here's a fuller story I wrote about that some time ago.
So anyhow NOAA keeps a list of tropical storm now and recycles them, and other organizations all over the globe have followed suit. For the Western North Pacific and South China Sea, the World Meteorological Office keeps lists of names proposed by different nations, and they use them one by one. Haiyan was proposed by China, and next up will be Podul, from North Korea.
As far as I can tell, Yolanda shows up only on the list of Eastern North Pacific names, and even then on the list for 2014. It all doesn't make much sense to me, but I'm not bothering anybody in the Phillippines today to get their explanation. If anybody can explain it, I'll be glad for the information.
UPDATE: Excellent readers have answered all questions. For one thing, the very kind Dan Bloom advised that PAGASA, the Philippine Atmospheric, Geophysical and Astronomical Services Administration, maintains the Philippine Tropical Cyclone Names list. You can see Yolanda is on the 2013 list, so it all makes sense. The international organizations ascribe names, but individual countries can use their own names as well, which accounts for Haiyan/Yolanda. As to general naming history, according to NOAA it's true that West Indies hurricanes were sometimes named for the saint's days near which they occurred, but the organized reference to storms by weather organizations pretty much followed the timeline I used above; despite the comments by KalTech, I don't believe this in any way represents American refusal to give credit to other peoples' traditions and accomplishments. Finally, according to my Oxford American, "hurricane" probably comes from the name of a storm god of the Taino (the native people who greeted Columbus), who were an Arawak people, not Mayans.
Be sure to read the comments by chiayiboy, below, who explains that "Haiyan" means "sea sparrow," which the storm, regrettably, was not.
I love learning from readers! Yay crowd!