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Let's Look At The Language

September 24, 2011

Names of hurricanes don't match reality

When the storm named Irene barreled up into Edmeston four weeks ago, I didn't think I'd still be looking down upon the vestiges of her destruction from my upstairs windows. A 50-year denizen of the Connecticut shoreline, I've experienced more than a few timber-tumbling events during that mercurial annual period known as hurricane season.

But come on, in Central New York? Apparently so. My backyard -- with its toppled trees and thousands of dollars in damage and cleanup -- can attest to it. In a stroke of irony, at the time Irene hit us, I was housing friends and relatives from the Connecticut shore who were seeking shelter from the storm. When they could return home, their towns were without power, but none of their properties had sustained as much loss and cost as I had right here. Good night, Irene.

And then came Lee. I watched the dry-bed-turned-raging Mill Creek spewing an occasional overflow onto my Irene-ravaged lawn, but what were these images compared to those on TV and online? Dear God. All those towns south of me along the Susquehanna and her sister rivers could not possibly be in the throes of another Flood of 2006. And yet ... suffice it to say, any self-pity I may have felt about what Irene had left me to deal with vaporized pretty quickly.

Having grown up in a hurricane-prone area, I naturally follow the formation and tracking of tropical storms, and I will never cease to be awed to my knees by the extreme and sudden devastation that weather can deliver. Something I've always wondered: When meteorologists (who know better than anyone the deadly potential of storms) began naming Atlantic hurricanes in the 1950s, why didn't they go with names like Hitler and Mussolini? Instead they made an alphabetical list of girls' first names, like Irene, which incongruously means "peace."

If they were set on girls' names, why not names like Jezebel (the evil wife of King Ahab) or Pandora (the woman of Greek myth who unleashed all the evils upon the earth)? And when boys' names were introduced in 1979, why were the first three "male hurricanes" named Bob ("bright"), David ("friend"), and Frederic ("peaceful ruler")?

The World Meteorological Organization oversees the names of hurricanes, which are predetermined alphabetic lists on a six-year cycle. Names are replaced only when a hurricane is so costly in lives and property that its name is forever retired. Personally I think all the names should be retired and replaced with appropriate names of dastardly meaning or repute -- and leave all the first names of decent, normal people out of it! It's one thing to share a name with a storm that acts up in the Atlantic but never makes landfall. It's quite another to have your perfectly nice name become synonymous with incalculable human suffering and untold destruction. Ask anyone named Camille ("chaste") or Katrina ("pure").

In my lifetime, some 75 hurricanes were catastrophic enough to merit the retirement of their names. These storms claimed tens of thousands of lives, left hundreds of thousands homeless and bereft, and incurred hundreds of billions in structural and environmental damages. And with what monikers were these deadly wreakers of havoc christened? Carol ("melody"), Edna ("pleasure"), Diane ("divine"), Janet ("gracious"), Donna ("lady"), Hilda ("protector"), Gloria ("glory"), Elena ("light"), Joan ("God is gracious"), Gilbert ("trusted"), Roxanne ("dawn"), Isabel ("consecrated to God"), Ivan ("gift of God"), Felix ("happy and prosperous"), Ike ("he will laugh"), Paloma ("a dove") ... well, you get the idea.

If the WMO would consider rewriting their hurricane alphabet with a set of more suitable names, I'd be happy to get them started: Al-Qaida, Beelzebub, Caligula, Dracula, Eichmann, Fagin, Goebbels, Herod, Idi Amin, Judas, Khomeini, Lucifer ... well, you get the idea.

Edmeston resident Christine A. Lindberg, senior U.S. lexicographer for Oxford University Press, is the principal content editor of Oxford's American English dictionaries and thesauruses. Opinions expressed by Lindberg in this column are done so independently, and do not necessarily reflect the policies and practices of Oxford University Press. Have a question or comment relating to the English language? Email Selected submissions will be answered here periodically.

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