‘Storms need human names’ says Met Office

Blowing over: In ‘The Great Storm of 1987’, the MV Hengist was washed ashore in Folkestone © PA

The Met Office has asked the public to help choose the official names for Great Britain’s worst upcoming storms. Why do we like to personify the things around us?

How would you feel if you were warned that the Fergie Storm was approaching? What about the Boris, or the Taylor? It might well happen — these are just a few of the names suggested on Twitter after the Met Office asked Britain to #nameourstorms. There are three rules: the names must be ‘recognisably human’, and once they have been chosen, they will be used alphabetically, alternating between male and female.

It’s a tradition which first became popular when sailors in World War II began naming storms after their wives or girlfriends. The system became official policy in the US and other countries. Male names were introduced in the 1970s after Roxcy Bolton, of the National Organization for Women, called the all-female naming process sexist, suggesting that hurricanes should be named after US senators and referred to as ‘him-icanes’.

In the UK, the ‘St Jude’s Day storm‘ in 2013 was one of the first to be given a more ’human’ name, a move which the Met Office now believes helped to raise awareness before the most serious damage was done. Research elsewhere has also found that anthropomorphising storms helps to alert the public to the dangers of extreme weather. Derrick Ryall, the head of the public weather service, said that he hoped the new system would help to keep people ‘safe and protected’. But why?

Psychologists believe that when people anthropomorphise the animals and inanimate objects around them, they are attempting to exert control over their environment.

But naming things can also make them more sympathetic. Take Walter Palmer, the US dentist who found himself at the centre of the world’s outrage after shooting and killing Cecil the lion on a hunting trip to Zimbabwe. After weeks of personal threats and protests outside his surgery, this week he gave his first interview. ‘If I had known this lion had a name,’ he said, ‘obviously I wouldn’t have taken it.’

What’s in a name?

Giving names to objects and animals is a centuries old habit of the human race. It is important, say meteorologists and other researchers, for people to be able to talk about severe weather warnings. If making them more human helps, then so be it. After all, it is the same process which allows us to relate to our pets, and ascribing human features to complex technology can help us to understand it better.

But perhaps this is a dangerous illusion. Humanity does not, after all, have control over the universe. If we truly want to understand it, we should acknowledge that our place in it is rather small. Once we accept this, we can begin seeing things for what they are, rather than as mere reflections of ourselves. Isn’t that a far more liberating way to live?

You Decide

  1. Should we give human names to other natural threats, such as the Ebola epidemic?
  2. Would you describe humanity as important or insignificant?

Activities

  1. Imagine a storm is coming this winter. Gather into groups of three and choose a name. Write them on the whiteboard and vote for your favourite. Email the winning suggestion to the Met Office.
  2. Use the Encyclopaedia Brittanica entry under Become an Expert to write a timeline of anthropomorphism. Do you think it is becoming more common?

Some People Say...

“Pets shouldn’t have human names.”

What do you think?

Q & A

Why does it matter whether we name things or not?
The compulsion to name things — whether animals or objects — occurs throughout human societies, and it’s always worth examining our most common behaviours. But more than that, the things that we name and the names that we choose are often a reflection of our outlook on life. That is why feminists in the 1970s were angry at the decision to give unpredictable and destructive hurricanes female names.
But is it really a bad thing?
Maybe not. But the emotional connection that comes from using human names can distort our perspective. Why does someone think it is acceptable to kill an unnamed lion on a hunting trip, but the entire world mourns for Cecil? Does that mean we should name all African lions in order to protect them?

Word Watch

Met Office
The UK’s official weather agency is most famous for providing the evening weather forecasts — although it recently lost the contract with the BBC. However, it will still be used to provide severe weather warnings in the event of storms and heavy snowfall.
Roxcy Bolton
The achievements of Roxcy Bolton, a fierce feminist activist in the USA, included founding the country’s first rape treatment centre, removing all-male sections of restaurants in Florida, and campaigning for the Equal Rights Amendment — a proposed change to the constitution which would give women equal rights. It was never approved.
St Jude’s Day storm
St Jude is the patron saint of desperate causes, and his feast day is celebrated on 28 October. On that day in 2013, a severe storm hit southern England, and falling trees killed four people. More than 660,000 homes were temporarily without power.
Anthropomorphising
Anthropomorphism is the attribution of human characteristics to inanimate objects and animals.

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