As Hurricane Isaias continues the record-setting pace of the 2020 Atlantic Ocean hurricane season as the earliest ninth storm in the season since 2005, the proper pronunciation of the storm’s name as provided by the National Hurricane Center (ees-ah-EE-ahs) has generated interest.
From Sally and Fred on to Gaston and Humberto, the names designated for the Atlantic hurricane seasons of the years 2020 to 2025 range from the familiar to those which may be less common.
If you’ve ever wondered how tropical systems get their names you are not alone: While the answer to why a hurricane is given a certain name is rather simple, the history behind the naming of storms is far from it.
In fact, according the travel publication Atlas Obscura, the unofficial naming of tropical systems dates back to the 1850s, before any weather agency, and it was fraught with racism, sexism and vendettas.
The word “hurricane” itself comes from the Taino Indigenous Caribbean word hurakán, meaning evil spirits of the wind. These Indigenous people of Cuba, Jamaica, Hispaniola and Puerto Rico were among the first on record to frequently experience the wrath of what Mother Nature could serve up across the hurricane-prone Caribbean Sea.
A timeline of naming hurricanes
- Hurricanes were commonly named for the Saint’s Day on which they occurred.
World War II
- Navy and Air Force meteorologists began naming tropical systems after girlfriends and wives as an easy method to keep track of multiple storms.
- Names, originally of women only, were officially used by the US Weather Bureau. The female-only naming structure was likely a byproduct of Air Force and Navy personnel’s often familial naming of the previous decade. The practice of publicly naming hurricanes has been credited with increasing hurricane awareness.
- The names of men were introduced to the list for Atlantic Ocean storms, in alphabetical order, excluding names starting with the letters Q,U, X, Y or Z. The list now alternates gendered names.
In the event that a season is exceptionally busy and there are more than 21 named storms in a season the Greek alphabet will be used. The last season to use the Greek alphabet was the 2005 hurricane season, the busiest season to date.
Fast forward to present day and the reason we have names such as Gaston, Humberto and Fred is because these French, Spanish and English names represent the languages most commonly used across the Atlantic Basin.
Names are now chosen by the World Meteorological Organization, and separate naming systems are used for different ocean regions. Similar to Atlantic names, names in other basins reflect the languages spoken in the region.
In the Western North Pacific basin and the Northern Indian Ocean basin, countries in the region contribute one name each per season, which are used alphabetically.
There are exactly six lists of names in the Atlantic system, with each list used in rotation every six years. Of course, if devastating enough, the storm name is then retired and replaced with another name starting with the identical letter. Isaias replaces Ike, which was retired in 2008.