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Beware Hurricane Snooki

Big-BerthaI must love language more than I love truth. Example: The venerable Economist, along with several other publications, recently reported on a study whose tentative conclusion was that female-named hurricanes—or, more precisely, feminine-sounding hurricanes—cause more death than their masculine counterparts. The reason behind this apparent rise of the Valkyries is that those who hear of, say, Hurricane Tiffany fear her far less than those who hear of Hurricane Boris. They therefore take fewer precautions and put their lives more at risk.

My first reaction to this news echoed that of an Economist commenter who goes by DavesView:

So, when deciding whether to evacuate an area, some people base their decision on the storm’s actual severity, and some base their decision on how girly the name sounds? And that second group is more likely to die in a storm?

Are we sure there is anything that needs fixing here?

Then, of course, my balloon popped when I read the sober critique of the study by Jeff Lazo, of the National Center for Atmospheric Research. I mean, I live with a social scientist, and this happens all the time. You get hold of something absolutely mind-blowing about human behavior, and he starts picking away at the nuts and bolts. For instance, given that hurricanes only got male names beginning in 1979, there really aren’t enough data to support any conclusions about male vs. female. And then you’ve got direct vs. indirect deaths, like how can a guy who cleans up fallen electrical wires be more prone to dying of electrical shock if the storm that took down the wires was named Celia and not Christopher? And what about the volunteers who responded to the research team’s survey regarding hypothetical storms? How were they selected, what were their other biases, and so on?

Sheesh. I was having fun there for a minute, thinking about Hurricane Lacey and the Darwin Prize.

Then I ran across the original researchers’ rebuttal to their adversaries, and the story grew more interesting. Not from the point of view of public policy—should we start naming storms Alpha, Beta, and Gamma rather than Adelaide, Ben, and Claire, if that will save lives?—but from the point of view of gender and names, an issue that permeates our culture.  Among the many solid points the original researchers raised, they had this to say:

Our analysis primarily focused on the femininity-masculinity of names, not only on male/female as a binary category. Even during the female-only years, the names differed in degree of femininity (compare two female names: Fern, which is less feminine to Camille, a rather feminine name).

Whoah! Wow! When did this happen? Are you telling me that Fern of Charlotte’s Web is less feminine than, say, Charlotte? Who decides these things? And what was the very male French composer Saint-Saëns’s first name again?

I went back, very curious now, to the list of “Retired Atlantic Names”—that is, the storms whose impact has been great enough that their names are forever inscribed and will not be used again. In the 1950s, these names included Edna, Hazel, and Ione; in the 1960s, Hattie, Cleo, and Beulah. Now, these may not strike you as exceptionally feminine compared with, say, Fifi (retired in 1974) or Lili (retired in 2002). And the male name Frederic (retired in 1979, with that limp-looking c, minus the k) or even Fabian (retired in the 2000s) may not strike you as macho compared with the sturdier Hugo and Mitch (1989, 1998). But let us remind ourselves that the most popular girl’s baby name in 1933 was Norma. Surely many of those doting parents thought their cherubic baby daughters feminine. And Evelyn was once a perfectly acceptable name for a dude.

Let’s just say, for argument’s sake—and because it’s fun to think about it—that the researchers are right. People go gaily out into the wind when the storm’s got a girly name, and they hunker down when the male force approaches. Now look at the so-called six-year list of Atlantic storms, going forward. These are the names we recycle, the ones we’ll use over and over again until “a storm is so deadly or costly that the future use of its name on a different storm would be inappropriate for reasons of sensitivity.” How will we be thinking of Chantal 30 years from now? Or Henri, or Van, or Nana, or Gert? Gert!  So we have this fantastic mish-mash of recycled names punctuated by replacement names presumably lobbed into the mix by young scientists in the thick of the zeitgeist: Shary sandwiched between Richard and Tobias, Cristobal just below Bertha.

I know, I know, there are decisions to be made, and science should drive policy. But let’s set the statistics aside for a moment and contemplate how these storms have wrested their names from us and clothed themselves in the bright apparel of those gendered syllables, their glistening armor and death-dealing arias. We could start with the most androgynous one. Remember hir? Sandy.

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