How Maria Got Her Name (That’s ‘Ma-RYE-a’)


George Rippey Stewart

Hurricane Maria made its unforgettable impression on Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands last month. But where did it get its name? And who first thought of giving names to tropical storms, anyhow?

Was it the National Hurricane Center, which has been naming storms in the Atlantic since 1953? No, earlier than that.

Or did the idea come from Lerner and Loewe, who back in 1951 composed “They Call the Wind Maria” for the musical Paint Your Wagon?

How about American military meteorologists during World War II, who often gave tropical storms names to avoid confusion?

No, all those were just followers. The idea goes back to one man, an academic: George R. Stewart, professor of English at the University of California at Berkeley.

He it was who wrote the best-selling 1941 novel Storm, with its protagonist just that, a storm, whom one of the antagonists, a junior meteorologist in San Francisco, personifies as Maria.

(That’s with a “rye” pronunciation for the middle syllable, Stewart explained later. “The soft Spanish pronunciation is fine for some heroines, but our Maria here is too big for any man to embrace and much too boisterous.”)

StormcoverBorn in the Pacific and dying 12 days later, Maria sweeps through California and challenges other antagonists ranging from a chief meteorologist to a lineman and a young couple caught up in the storm.

And Stewart did far more than that. In 1951, he helped found the American Name Society. And although he didn’t make any major contributions to literary theory, he invented, as one source puts it, “several types of books along the way — road-geography book, micro-history, micro-novel, place-name history, ecological history, and the ecological novel.’” Earth Abides, a science fiction novel, is his best known.

He could make a book out of anything. Take his book Doctor’s Oral, written after (years after) he had taken his oral exams for his Ph.D. Though it was not a best seller, when published in 1939, it too was well received.

And then there was Fire, published in 1971. The protagonist? A fire, of course. And did the fire get a name? Of course. Spitcat.

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