Of storms and ships at sea

Let’s not take them personally

We have names. Our pets have names. And so do hurricanes and ships. But, unlike us and our pets, hurricanes and ships do not have sex. Or gender.

So, please, shouldn’t we stop calling them “him” or “her”? It personalizes them to a ludicrous extent.

Hurricane Sandy, which recently devastated parts of the Northeast, is a case in point. News reports often referred to the storm as “she” or “her,” leading to such unfortunate quotes as this, from Atlantic City’s chief of emergency management: “’Sandy is pretty furious at Atlantic City. She must have lost a bet or something. As we say in our slogan, ‘Do A.C.’ She’s doing A.C., all right.”’

The National Hurricane Center, part of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, keeps a list of 21 names for tropical cyclones that is rotated every six years. It has a different list for Atlantic, Eastern North Pacific, Central North Pacific, and “Other Basins” in its purview; the World Meteorological Organization keeps the master lists for cyclones elsewhere. As the WMO site notes, the practice of naming storms began more than a hundred years ago, “in order to help in the quick identification of storms in warning messages because names are presumed to be far easier to remember than numbers and technical terms.” At first, the names came from the saints’ day on which they occurred, or from notable or memorable damages caused by that storm; in the mid-1900s, the first alphabetical lists were drawn up, and in 1953 the U.S. made its list exclusively of women’s names, for reasons presumably lost to pre-feminist times. In 1979, men’s names were added.

The lists are rotated every six years, unless a storm produces a great deal of damage or death. Thus, there will never be another Katrina, Ike, Mitch, or, more than likely, Sandy.

But let’s never refer to a storm as if it were a person.

Sandy produced other naming problems as well. When the possibility that the tropical Sandy (named once its winds reached 39 miles an hour) would merge with a classic nor’easter, it was called “a perfect storm” or “Frankenstorm.” Though who first named it that may never be known, the National Weather Service did use “Frankenstorm” in several of its advisories, even though it is not a recognized term. And once that merger did happen, Sandy became “post-tropical.” But “post-tropical Sandy” sounds a bit as if the storm had just returned from a beach vacation, so many news outlets simply named it “Superstorm Sandy,” and government agencies picked up on that. (It was also called “Blizzicane Sandy,” a nod to the snowfall it produced.) The NWS uses “superstorm” on occasion, though it can apply to any major storm, tropical or not. Most “superstorms,” in fact, have no names.

The Weather Channel also tried to get in on the name game. It decided that it would name winter storms. Its list is drawn heavily from mythology, Greco-Roman tradition, and an odd sense of humor (“Q: The Broadway Express subway line in New York City”). But remember that the Weather Channel is, um, a weather channel, and not a government or scientific entity. Pay attention or not, as your audience will tolerate.

As for ships, the reason many of them have been referred to as “she,” even if they were named for a man or a place, is also lost to pre-feminist history. The Navy says it’s because of the “the close dependence” early mariners “had on their ships for life and sustenance.” Among the other possible reasons: grammar (in languages where all nouns must have a gender, or because the noun for “ship” is often feminine); the tradition that sailors were “married” to the sea and thus to their ships (even though women were considered bad luck aboard a ship); the figurehead on the prow of a ship was often a carving of a woman; or, like women, they require a great deal of care and upkeep. OK, let’s not even consider that last one, or others of their ilk.

But we do not personify or give gender to toasters, personal computers, nuclear reactors, cars (well, some of us do), or other objects. So let’s not do it to storms or ships, either.

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Merrill Perlman managed copy desks across the newsroom at The New York Times, where she worked for 25 years. Follow her on Twitter at @meperl. Tags: , , , , ,