Storm Desmond has caused major havoc across the west of Ireland these past two nights, from Cork and Kerry to Donegal and Omagh. Terrible floods, power outages and so much heartbreak. But why Desmond?
Last September Met Eireann and the Met Office announced a pilot project to give names to major storms in Ireland and the UK. They reckoned this simple act of giving a forthcoming storm system a first name would increase public awareness of dangerous weather on the way. So they asked the public for suggestions. The winning names were:
Abigail, Barney, Clodagh, Desmond, Eva, Frank, Gertrude, Henry, Imogen, Jake, Katie, Lawrence, Mary, Nigel, Orla, Phil, Rhonda, Steve, Tegan, Vernon and Wendy.
(No storm names beginning with the letters Q, U, X, Y or Z then. Sorry Zack and Una.)
If a storm is the remnants of a tropical storm or hurricane that has crossed the Atlantic, the weather people will continue to use the established way of referring to it, such as “Ex-Hurricane X”.
For X, please substitute the relevant 2015 tropical storm or hurricane name from:
Ana, Bill, Claudette, Danny, Erika, Fred, Grace, Henri, Ida, Joaquin, Kate, Larry, Mindy, Nicholas, Odette, Peter, Rose, Sam, Teresa, Victor, Wanda.
On the naming of things
OK, I have a thing about names – from real-life people’s names to the names we give fictional characters. At one level a name is just an arbitrary label, at another level all kinds of strange psychological effects and connotations could be wrapped up within a particular name. What happens when we give these people’s names to natural phenomena such as storms and hurricanes?
Does the very act of naming really raise public awareness in advance? Quite probably, at least if you’ve suffered from the horrible effects of Storm Desmond.
But do different names have different effects? Would people sit up and take far more notice if, for example, a forthcoming big storm were called Storm Nemesis or Storm Negatron instead of, um, Storm Nigel?
And what does that name do after the weather event? Does it somehow pin down a disaster, make it more memorable and seem more “quantifiable” and tangible?
People in Ireland still speak of Hurricane Charley from 1986 (bear in mind that “Charlie” also happened to be a shorthand for a notorious Irish politician in those days, Charles Haughey). And in New Orleans, nobody will forget the Hurricane Katrina disaster of 2005 onwards. The word “Katrina” became a shorthand for terrible events.
Do these bad-weather connotations then rub off on all the Katrinas of this world, as in anyone who happens to have that name? Is a job application more likely to be rejected – out of a purely subconscious prejudice of course – simply because the poor person’s name at the top of the CV happens to be a Katrina (or Catriona or Caitríona in Ireland)?
Before we began to use people’s first names for severe weather events, they’d sometimes be given more general, “impersonal” names such as the “Great Storm of 1987” in the UK and France. Or the “Night of the Big Wind”(Oíche na Gaoithe Móire in Irish) across Ireland on 6 January 1839 – it had a death toll of several hundred people, it damaged or destroyed a fifth of the houses in north Dublin, and wrecked 42 ships.
There’s a much older naming system around some parts of the Mediterranean, where the winds themselves get names. In France, le Mistral is perhaps the most famous wind, a violent force that blows through the south during spring and winter.
Then there’s the Sirocco (or Scirocco). It can reach hurricane speeds, a wind from the Sahara that can blow fine red dust from Libya right across southern Europe, from Italy to Greece. Once in a while the Sirocco can even reach Ireland. The wind I mean, not the car of the same name.
But back to those new storm warning labels. Maybe the selection committee chose the mix of names as a sort of “fair balance” of English, Irish, Scottish and Welsh types of name. A limited form of multiculturalism or multinationalism, a bit like how BBC Radio 4’s late lamented theme tune knitted together folk airs that reflect or symbolise these same four traditions. Hence Greensleeves/Drunken Sailor, Danny Boy (aka the Londonderry Air), Scotland the Brave, Men of Harlech and, er, Rule Britannia.
So does a person’s name somehow personify a weather system, giving Nature a more human face as it were, making it more meaningful and relevant – or turning it into a kind of pagan force, a malevolent goblin called Nigel?
Then again, surely Nature itself is innocent enough. If anything or anyone is to blame for the weather being so out of kilter these days, it’s us humans. People. People with people’s names and a rotten attitude to the one and only planet that we have. OK, rant over.