What’s in a hurricane name?

Most weather events come and go like nameless strangers, but each hurricane gets the human touch of a moniker all its own. Centuries ago, the worst hurricanes in Spanish-speaking areas were named after the saint's day on which they occurred. A more elaborate naming tradition started with Clement Wragge, a forecaster in Australia during the 1880s. Wragge dubbed cyclones after Greek gods, Polynesian maidens and politicians with whom he disagreed.The idea caught on in America through George Stewart's 1941 novel Storm, in which a Pacific weather forecaster named storms after women. After the US armed forces began naming Pacific typhoons in 1945, forecasters applied military lingo to Atlantic hurricanes starting in 1950 (Able, Baker, Charlie, etc), then switched to women's names in 1953 (starting with Alice, Barbara and Carol). The practice made it far easier for the public to follow a specific storm over a few days, but the sexist overtones of using only female names soon became impossible to ignore. Again, Australia set the pace by switching in 1975 to a scheme that alternated men's and women's names. The US, and much of the rest of the world, followed suit in 1979; that year, David and Frederic were the two most destructive Atlantic storms.

Atlantic and Pacific hurricanes are now named from lists that rotate every few years. In 1999 a group of 14 nations affected by typhoons in the northwest Pacific took on a mix of indigenous names that includes roses, singing birds, favourite foods and at least one transportation hub: Kai-tak, Hong Kong's old airport. Cyclones in the North Indian Ocean went nameless until 2004, when a new naming system was created by the 16 countries bordering the region.