KAI: Hi, my name is Kai, and I am seven years old. I live in Philadelphia, and I wanted to know where the name hurricane comes from since we got hit with floods and constant rain by a tornado-- I mean a hurricane-- so I was wondering if you could put that on your broadcast and tell me, please.
AUDIENCE: That was really good, Kai. This is dad here. Thanks so much.
JOHANNA MAYER: Thank you, Kai and Kai's dad. We actually made an episode about this last year about not just the word hurricane but also why we give storms names like Ida, or Peter, and not just hurricane number 7 or whatever. So just for you, Kai, we're going to play it again.
This episode originally aired in 2020, which was a particularly weird year for hurricane names. And just one quick thing before we get started-- you're going to hear me use the words hurricane, typhoon, and cyclone pretty much interchangeably. They're all the same weather system, but we just have different names for them, depending on where they occur. So in some parts of the world, they call them cyclones. In other parts, they're called typhoons, which, by the way, that word likely comes from the Chinese taifeng, which basically means big or great wind.
And when it happens in the Atlantic near us, it's called a hurricane. So same weather system, different parts of the world. OK, here we go.
Leave it to 2020 to put us in a weird weather situation. We ran out of hurricane names. Well, kind of. So every year, the World Meteorological Organization puts out a list of 21 hurricane names in alphabetical order. So 2020 started with Arthur, ended with Wilfred. We skip less common letters like X and Z.
But by mid-September, we'd already reached Wilfred. We'd flown through all 21 names with two months of Hurricane season left to go. So what do you do when you run out of Hurricane names? You bust out the Greek alphabet-- hurricane alpha, beta, gamma. As of this recording, the most recent hurricane of the season-- iota, a particularly brutal hurricane that just hit Central America.
This is by more or less the system since 1979. Start with the list of 21 names, tick through them as storms come up, and, hopefully, you don't have to resort to the Greek alphabet. We've only had to do that once before in 2005. So how exactly does the name make it onto this list? Bit of a mystery.
We know there are regional committees that advised the World Meteorological Organization. Beyond that, kind of a black box, but we do know that some names are off limits.
LIZ SKILTON: You can't have any names that have any sort of larger cultural or political significance, so you can't have a politician, for instance.
JOHANNA MAYER: Liz Skilton is a historian. She wrote a book called Tempest-- Hurricane Naming in American Culture, all about how we name hurricanes.
LIZ SKILTON: Nor can you have anybody from history that might have other implications. So the analogy I always use is you're never going to see an Adolf Hitler or a Hitler hurricane.
JOHANNA MAYER: And if a hurricane is particularly devastating, you can't reuse that name again, so no more Katrinas, no more Sandys. But why do we give hurricanes people names? We don't do it for earthquakes, or tornadoes, or blizzards.
And for a long time, it was the same deal with hurricanes. We just called them the great insert location, hurricane of insert year. There was a period when we used latitude and longitude to ID a storm. So you'd have something like hurricane 28 degrees, 08 minutes, 55.7 seconds North, 67 degrees, 56 minutes, 47.0 seconds West. Rolls right off the tongue.
So today's episode, how hurricanes went from long strings of numbers to plain old Bobs and Sallys. From Science Friday, this is Science Diction. I'm Johanna Mayer. Today, we're talking about Hurricane names.
At the turn of the 20th century, archeologists uncovered this series of artifacts in Cuba. Some were from broken pieces of pottery. Others are little statues. But they all depict a face surrounded by two spiraling arms.
These artifacts were made by the Taino people, who are Indigenous to the Caribbean islands. They're the first people Christopher Columbus encountered when he landed. They're also likely the people that gave us the word hurricane.
CRISTINA GONZALEZ: Hurricane comes from the Spanish word huracan, which comes from the Native Caribbean [SPEAKING FOREIGN LANGUAGE] word, which is [SPEAKING FOREIGN LANGUAGE].
JOHANNA MAYER: Cristina Gonzalez is Taino herself, and she's getting her doctorate in anthropology right now. She's also a person who stutters, and we're not editing it out. So she sounds like herself. Cristina said that, when Columbus and the conquistadors came to the Caribbean, they'd just never seen a hurricane before.
CRISTINA GONZALEZ: So they had no term for it, so, naturally, they adopted the term that was used by the local people on the islands, which is huracan.
JOHANNA MAYER: There's a little bit of murkiness around the exact etymology. The Maya and several other Indigenous peoples that were living around the same time as the Taino all had really similar words for the same weather phenomenon. The word is almost perfectly preserved today.
CRISTINA GONZALEZ: One way of many in which Taino continues to live is in the language and in the words that we speak. Hurricane is an example of that. When we use the word hurricane, we're actually speaking Taino.
JOHANNA MAYER: If you look at those ceramic artifacts that I mentioned earlier, it really seems like the Taino understood what was happening in a hurricane-- rotating winds with a calm eye at the center. Western science wouldn't figure this out till the mid-19th century. But what actually makes a hurricane a hurricane and not just any other old storm? There's a few essential ingredients.
Ingredient number one-- fast winds, at least 74 miles per hour. Any slower, and it's technically a tropical storm or just a measly old tropical depression. Ingredient number two-- rotation. Hurricanes spin counterclockwise in the northern hemisphere, clockwise in the southern.
And finally, ingredient number three-- warm water. The sea surface has to be at least 80 degrees or so. The contrast between warm water temperatures at the surface and cold temperatures in the atmosphere is what drives the intensity of the storm. Hurricanes suck up heat from warm waters. It fuels them, so that's why climate change is expected to cause more severe storms.
So that's what a hurricane is, a very fast rotating storm. And thanks to the Indigenous people of the Caribbean, we've been calling these things hurricanes for centuries, in the Atlantic basin at least. But we didn't always give names to individual storms, and then came along a meteorologist named Clement Wragge.
In the late 1800s, Clement was the government meteorologist for the state of Queensland in Australia. Over there, they call them cyclones, not hurricanes, but they're the same thing. And one day, in the mid 1890s for reasons unknown, he started naming storms. It started out innocent enough. He actually used the Greek alphabet for a while, just like we're doing today.
But Clement had a little bit of a mischievous streak. And soon he started zhuzhing things up, dabbled in naming storms after Greek and Roman gods, military heroes, and women, particularly imaginary native women with imaginary personalities. So for example, he called one storm Mahina and wrote, quote, "We fear that Mahina will not prove so soft and gentle as the Tahitian maiden of that name."
Yeah, definitely kind of cringy. Clement eventually got into some trouble with his naming system. He butted heads with local politicians, and, when he switched from naming storms after Tahitian women and started naming them after politicians, that really pissed them off. Clement lost his funding and eventually got run out of weather town. And for a while, his naming system died, too.
LIZ SKILTON: Yeah, the naming system becomes something of kind of meteorological lore.
JOHANNA MAYER: Historian Liz Skilton again.
LIZ SKILTON: Like, don't do that because this is going to cause problems, and so it goes away.
JOHANNA MAYER: Four decades went by, and we were back to naming storms the great hurricane of x, y, z year. Then the names came back because of a novel called Storm. It was published in 1941 by an American English professor named George Rippey Stewart, and, while he was doing research for this book, one of the people Stewart came across was Clement Wragge. So in the novel, there's this young meteorologist who's tracking this huge storm, and he takes a page out of Clement's book and decides to name it.
LIZ SKILTON: And he proclaims that female-only names are really effective ways to remember storms and that it gives them personalities.
JOHANNA MAYER: The name that the young meteorologists settles on? Maria. And Storm made a splash. It became a bestseller. Walt Disney made a dramatization of it. It even inspired a song in a 1969 Western Musical.
- (SINGING) The rain is Tess, the fire Joe, and they call the wind Maria.
JOHANNA MAYER: But the thing that really cemented the book's place in history was World War II when it made it into these US government-issued entertainment kits that were sent to American soldiers. So all of these soldiers who were stationed in the Pacific, where there are a lot of typhoons, were reading this book, a book where a meteorologist was giving human names to storms. And pretty soon, the military was naming storms, too.
And it was for a super practical reason. They were using these names as code names. A typhoon is heading towards the southern coast of Japan? Good to know about if you've got troops stationed there, even better if your enemy doesn't know that you know. They could just say we've got to get out of the way of, I don't know, typhoon Martha. But it was a pretty pell mell system.
LIZ SKILTON: The first code names that are used in the Pacific theater are womens-only names. They were girlfriends and wives of the soldiers who were stationed there, and they had no official order. It was just like, we're going to use Joe's wife this week. We're going to use Tom's wife that week, right?
JOHANNA MAYER: After the war, we didn't really need to talk about storms in code anymore, but it turns out the names just made things easier. You say one name, it's concise. It's unique. And even if there are multiple storms in the same area at the same time, you know exactly which one you're talking about.
So in 1953, the Weather Bureau officially decided that not only did hurricanes get names, but, in keeping with the tradition of Clement Wragge, the novel Storm, and the military, hurricanes would get traditionally female names. And that was that until nearly two decades later when the director of the US National Weather Bureau received an unusual cease and desist letter. This business of giving hurricanes female names, it had to stop.
The letter came from two members of the National Organization for Women. One of those members was Roxcy O'Neal Bolton. And Roxcy, not one to mince words. I mean, listen to the way that she spoke.
ROXCY O'NEAL BOLTON: If you have the truth on your side, never let them beat you down. Never let them see you cry. Warriors don't cry.
JOHANNA MAYER: Roxcy died in 2017. This is tape from an oral history conducted by the Florida State Library and Archives in 2001. The Miami Herald once called Roxcy the founding mother of Florida's feminist movement. She pushed her law enforcement to prioritize rape cases. She got an airline to grant maternity leave to pregnant flight attendants. But in the '70s, she was all about Hurricane sexism. And Roxcy had it up to here with how the media talked about storms.
ROXCY O'NEAL 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 darn bit.
JOHANNA MAYER: News sources and politicians were calling hurricanes, among other lovely descriptors, bad girls, acting like a woman in labor, even sluts. I mean, listen to this 1971 documentary that the Department of Agriculture made about Hurricane Camille. [AUDIO PLAYBACK]
- For three days now, a new hurricane has been running loose along the southern coast, a lady called Camille, supposedly headed toward the Florida panhandle but, like any lady, perfectly capable of changing her mind.
JOHANNA MAYER: So the director of the National Weather Bureau gets this letter from Roxcy and invites her to this annual conference to make her case. And she shows up not once, not twice, but three years in a row. First year, it didn't go so great.
ROXCY O'NEAL BOLTON: They were laughing. They thought it was funny as heck, this woman's name. Oh, I had a girlfriend with that name. And it was just it was very disheartening. They didn't hear anything I said. They didn't take me seriously.
JOHANNA MAYER: No real outcome. They were like, you can't just show up here and ask us to completely overhaul this naming system without providing an alternative because, remember, it's not like these names are just for fun. They do actually make it easier to know which hurricane you're talking about. So Roxy thinks on it. The next year, she comes back. And she says to one of the members--
ROXCY O'NEAL BOLTON: I have a solution. I think you will like it. Oh, what is it, Mrs. Bolton? And I said, we'll name hurricanes for United States senators. Oh, he was just mad as all get out.
JOHANNA MAYER: Can you picture a headline like, Mitch McConnell demolishes Louisiana? Yeah, that wasn't going to fly. Roxcy did have one more idea, though, ran it past the steering committee chair.
ROXCY O'NEAL BOLTON: And I said, we'll name hurricanes for birds, and he says, then you'll have the Audubon Society on my back. So I said, you see, you don't care about what happens to women and their image. You just care about the Audubon Society, and you care about United States senators.
JOHANNA MAYER: All right, I get that this might all seem like some pretty small potatoes in the grand scheme of feminist issues. Also some women liked that hurricanes had female names. The Weather Bureau said it got letters from women requesting that a hurricane be named after them. But this was a period of time when people were really starting to pay attention to sexism in language like, why was it that we used he as the generic pronoun? And why did men get to be called mister whether or not they were married but women were so transformed by having a husband that they went from miss to Mrs?
Feminist groups argued that sexism, it wasn't just about job discrimination. It happened all the time, seeping into every facet of our lives, including our language. And Roxcy's argument about Hurricane names was that words matter.
Yeah, the panel at the hurricane naming conference didn't see it that way, though. Roxcy just kept hitting a wall. The panel kept telling her, you want to get rid of female names? Then come up with a better alternative. Roxcy never did find the answer, but someone else did.
Her name was Juanita Kreps, and she was the first woman ever elected as the US Secretary of Commerce. Her solution, rotate male and female names. Pretty obvious in retrospect-- well, obvious if you believe in the gender binary. Kreps got the World Meteorological Organization to sign off on this new system, and, in 1978, they gave a hurricane its very first male name-- hurricane Bob.
Bob lost steam after hitting land. It did kill one person, but that's about it. One Louisiana newspaper gave it a nickname, Bland Bob. I guess people can't resist poking fun at hurricanes no matter what the gender. We've been giving storm's male and female names ever since. So this year, we've had Hurricane Dolly and Hurricane Marco, hurricane. Paulette and Hurricane Teddy, a system that regularly ruins names for people of all genders. These names, they might sound silly and arbitrary, but they are useful.
Back in 2016, there were some intense flooding in Louisiana, three times as much rain as Hurricane Katrina. 13 people died. More than 1,000 homes were damaged. Tens of millions of in relief efforts, and I do not remember any of this. I only learned about it while researching this episode.
The floods didn't come from a hurricane. It was just a storm without a name. Naming storms is useful for tracking them, sure. But it goes deeper than that. It makes it easier for the media to report on storms, easier to talk about them on social media, easier to hold our attention when the storm passes and it's time for relief efforts. Naming something, even if it's this inanimate swirl of wind and warm waters, just makes it feel real and more memorable and not always in a bad way. Before we used up all the names on this year's list, there was Hurricane Sally.
- With force and fury--
- Wow, this hurricane is no joke.
- --hurricane Sally made landfall along the coast of Alabama just after 6:00 AM, bringing some of the Gulf of Mexico with it.
JOHANNA MAYER: I have an aunt named Sally.
JOHANNA MAYER: I called her up to see if the storm named Sally annoyed her, but it didn't, actually the opposite.
Wait, so you liked it?
SALLY: Yes, I did like it because I recently retired.
JOHANNA MAYER: My aunt isn't seeing too many people these days, not going to work, not socializing as much. And when Hurricane Sally brewed up, all these messages started pouring in.
SALLY: I just heard from a lot of people I hadn't heard from in a while, saying, oh, Hurricane Sally, oh, you're doing so much damage. You're so powerful, blah, blah, blah.
JOHANNA MAYER: You liked the attention.
SALLY: Well, yeah, I [INAUDIBLE] and whatnot, I don't see a lot of people anymore, so it was just nice to reconnect.
JOHANNA MAYER: Hurricane Sally did end up causing some serious damage, but, even though it's only been a couple of months, it has already become a blip in our national memory, totally eclipsed by the election, and COVID, and a hurricane season with at least 30 named storms. But I'll always remember it.
This episode originally aired in November 2020. Iota ended up being the last named storm of that season. This year, as of this recording, we're on Teresa, a post-tropical cyclone. Just two more names left on the list until we're back at the Greek alphabet, and we've got a whole two months left in hurricane season.
Science Diction is produced by me, Johanna Mayer, and our senior producer, Elah Feder. Our composer is--
DANIEL PETERSCHMIDT: Daniel Peterschmidt.
JOHANNA MAYER: We had story editing from Nathan Tobey, and Chris Wood contributed sound design and mastering. We had fact-checking by Michelle Harris. Special thanks to Raymond Najar and Eric Jay Dolin for background information. We also relied a lot on Eric's book, A Furious Sky. Thanks also to the Florida State Library and Archives for letting us use footage from Roxcy Bolton's oral history interview
And of course, thank you to Kai for calling us up and asking a great question. And if you have an idea for an episode, give us a ring. Leave us a voicemail. The number is 929-499-WORD. That's 929-499-9673. Nadja Oertelt is our chief content officer, and, when we did our performance reviews with her, we got kind of mixed messages.
SALLY: You're doing so much damage. You're so powerful, blah, blah, blah.
JOHANNA MAYER: See you soon.