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December 12, 1999 - Storm Names - 2002-02-01

INTRO: This week our Wordmasters Avi Arditti and Rosanne Skirble talk about the weather.


AA: Frank, a listener in Shanghai, was blown over by a sentence he read in the newspaper. RS: It said, "Hurricane Irene swept across parts of Florida."

AA: Frank is puzzled: After all, isn't Irene a woman's name?

RS: It is. But a hurricane is a severe storm that begins in the ocean, and Irene was the name of a hurricane that hit south Florida in October. AA: Frank Lepore at the National Hurricane Center in Miami says the current system of giving both female and male names to tropical storms dates back two decades.


"Prior to that time, in fact going back to World War Two, military forecasters, navy and air force, used to name typhoons and hurricanes there in the Pacific after women. It was just a convention; a way of keeping storms separated one from the other. And particularly when information was broadcast over long distances, this was helpful in identifying storms."

RS: Frank Lepore says the United States for a time used a system where storms were named after their phonetic equivalents ...

AA: ... Able, Baker, Charlie, Dog, Easy and so forth. But he says the U-S abandoned that system in the mid-1950s and went back to giving storms female names.


"That persisted from the mid-`50s until about 1977 when they considered a United Nations call for a uniform system of identifying tropical cyclones. And they hit upon the idea of alternating male and female names."

RS: In the Western Hemisphere, the United States and 24 other countries must approve storm names. There's a six-year supply, with 21 letters, out of the 26 in the Roman alphabet, used for names each year.

AA:The lists are alphabetical, but omit names that begin with the letters Q, U, X, Y or Z.

RS: So much for Quentin, Yvonne or Zelda! AA:There's never been a season with more than 21 storms strong enough to deserve a name. If there ever were, scientists would switch to the Greek alphabet.

RS: The hurricane season in our part of the world officially runs from May through the end of November.

AA: This season the first storm was named Arlene. Most names get re-used, but to avoid confusion, a name may be retired if a storm causes great damage or loss of life.

RS: National Hurricane Center spokesman Frank Lepore says names today reflect more than just the English influence on North America.


"This is a very ecumenical process. We don't want just Anglican names. Over the years the replacement names have tended to be more Spanish, Dutch and French."

AA:Yet some names may cause confusion.


"We had a Hurricane Georges last year, very French. That caused considerable economic damage here in Key West, Florida. They retired that name, it was replaced by a similar French name, Gaston. So we've at least kept the French flavor there. But many people had trouble pronouncing Georges."

AA: "They thought it was George."

LEPORE: "Right. Or the French Canadian Georges (`zheor-zhis)."

AA: "And it was actually pronounced?" LEPORE: "Georges (zhe-`or-zhe)."

RS: You name it, if you have a question about American English, send by it e-mail to

AA: Or by postal mail to VOA Wordmaster, Washington DC 20547 USA. With Rosanne Skirble, I'm Avi Arditti.

MUSIC: "Stormy Weather"/Lena Horn