Stormy Weather

Katrina devastated New Orleans and Mississippi. Now Rita is slamming into the Texas coast. Where do these names come from? Who picks them?

Traditionally, hurricanes were named for the saint’s day on which the hurricane occurred. This practice was prevalent in the Spanish West Indies. The same storm could have different names in different locales, depending on the day it struck each location as it moved across the Caribbean. On 13 September 1876, Hurricane San Felipe hit Puerto Rico. 52 years later, on 13 September 1928, Hurricane San Felipe the Second hit the island. This practice was even Anglicized on occasion; the September 1935 storm that devastated New England is known as the Labor Day storm.

With the advent of modern meteorology and storm tracking, the use of names that changed daily was untenable. The use of women’s names for storms began in the 1940s, following the use of a woman’s name for a storm in the 1941 novel Storm by George Stewart. Women’s names were used exclusively until 1978, except for 1951-52 when storms were named after the phonetic alphabet (Able, Baker, Charlie, etc.). In 1978, male names were added to the list of names for Pacific storms and a year later, Atlantic storm name list followed suit.

For each year the World Meteorological Organization creates a list of 21 male and female names for Atlantic storms, one for each letter of the alphabet (letters Q, U, X, Y, and Z are not used due to the relatively few names that begin with those letters). The list includes French, Spanish, Dutch, and English names to reflect the languages spoken throughout the Caribbean. The names are periodically reused, although names of storms that cause significant destruction are retired from the list. So, it is unlikely that we will ever have a Katrina the Second.

The Tropical Prediction Center in Miami, Florida tracks Atlantic storms. As soon as one is identified with wind speeds in excess of 38 miles per hour (34 knots), the next name on the list is assigned to the storm. Not all of these tropical storms grow into hurricanes and not all make significant landfall. (Which explains why we can go from Katrina to Rita in only a few weeks.)

If the list of names is exhausted and more storms continue to arise, the plan is to start naming them with letters of the Greek alphabet (alpha, beta, gamma, etc.). This has never happened before, but is a near certainty this year as hurricane season runs through November and we’re already on Rita. The most storms on record in a single season is twenty one, recorded in 1933, but this was before the modern system of nomenclature was introduced. 1995 is second, with nineteen named storms that year.

Gone To The Dogs

He may be man’s best friend, but no one is quite sure where his name comes from.

The word dog appears once in Old English, in a gloss from ca.1050, rather late in the Old English period. The gloss reads "canum docgena." Initially, dog was used to refer to particularly large canines. The origin of the word is obscure with no known root in other languages. Several European languages have cognates of dog, but these are all descended from the English word and provide no clue as to its original provenance.

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Esquivalience and Other Mountweazels

The August 29th issue of The New Yorker contains an article by Henry Alford in the Talk of the Town section about esquivalience and other mountweazels. Esquivalience? Mountweazel? Surely those aren’t words to be found in a dictionary?

Well, it seems the first is in a dictionary and the second appears in an encyclopedia. The 2nd edition of the New Oxford American Dictionary defines the first as:

"esquivalience—n. the willful avoidance of one’s official responsibilities ... late 19th cent.; perhaps from the French esquiver, ‘dodge, slink away.’"

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Barbarians

This week we take a look at barbarians, or more specifically what words we have used for them. A barbarian is, of course, an uncivilized person, or perhaps more accurately someone from a civilization or culture other than our own. In English usage, the words barbarian and barbarous date to the 16th century. The obsolete barbar was in use earlier, dating to the 14th century. The English word is borrowed from the French and ultimately comes from Latin and Greek. The origin in Greek is probably echoic, the bar-bar as mimicry of what a foreign and unintelligible language sounded like. In ancient Greece, the word was used to refer to anyone from a non-Hellenic culture. In Roman usage, the word was used to mean someone who was neither Roman nor Greek, and in later usage to anyone from outside the empire.

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Atomic

This past week saw the 60th anniversary of the dropping of the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the events that brought an end to World War II. These two grim events introduced a large number of terms in the vocabularies of millions.

First among these are the names for the device itself. The term atomic bomb predates the device, being used as early as 1914 in H.G. Wells’s The World Set Free. Its shorter cousin A-bomb dates from 1945 as does the term the bomb. The thermonuclear hydrogen bomb comes a few years later in 1947 and H-bomb in 1950. The use of more technically accurate nuclear to denote fission and fusion processes and weapons also comes in 1945.

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