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An XYZ Affair

by Julia Sneden

As I write this, Tropical Depression Alpha is dissipating in the Atlantic. Although it did cause some fatalities in Haiti, Alpha is not predicted to cause the US any grief which is welcome news in the wakes of Katrina, Rita and Wilma. As Alpha continues to fade we’ll be lucky, because convincing people to evacuate or board up for anything with so dull a name seems highly unlikely.

As I understand it, christening Atlantic hurricanes with common given names originated in the early 1950’s. Apparently the military practice of using human names to designate vehicles or groups (like “Charlie Company”) inspired the folks at the World Meteorological Organization to anthropomorphize the great storms. Until 1979, they used only women’s names, but once their sexism was pointed out, they shifted to alternation of male/female names in lists that rotate every six years. When a storm causes major damage, its name is retired and a substitute is entered onto the lists, but otherwise the names are just recycled every six years.

In case you wonder about such things, the initial letter with the most retired names (and thus the most destructive hurricanes) is “C,” with nine retired names from Carol in 1954 to Charley in 2004. “A” and “F” are tied for second place, with seven storms each, and “I” isn’t far behind, with six. If you’re in the path of the next “C” named storm, you might want to think twice about sitting it out.

The names on the lists are mostly standard English names, although a few are Hispanic or French, and the list proposed for 2007 gives us the Slavic Olga. The year 2008’s list ventures into the heretofore forbidden territory of the Middle East, with Omar. No doubt some people will worry that, given the state of our country’s relationship to that part of the world, it is unwise to name a potentially destructive storm Omar. But after all, America is the melting pot, and our storms might as well reflect it. In fact it seems to me that we’d be wise to spread out the blame by giving our storms all sorts of ethnicity.

That might solve the problem of XYZ, the three final letters of the alphabet that have never been used by whoever names the hurricanes. No one seems to know just who makes the original suggestions, but the list is voted on by the World Meteorological Organization, and substitutions, if needed, are chosen at their annual meetings.

Giving hurricanes names like Zara or Yakov would delay having to go to boring stuff like Alpha and Beta. If one thinks globally, the list of alphabetically-final names is quite long.

There’s Xandra, which is Dutch, or Xerxes, from Persia. There’s the Greek Xenophon, or Xeno.

Hebrew gives us Yetta and Yael. Yaa is from Africa and means “born on Thursday” (a great name for a storm that reaches hurricane standards on a Thursday, but of course one can’t count on foresight).

Yasmin is a lovely Muslim name. Yelena is the Russian equivalent of Helen, and Yevgeni is Russian for Eugene. Yehudi is Hebrew, and reminds us of the dynamic sounds of Yehudi Menuhin, the great violinist.

Zachariah was a powerful though short-lived King of Israel. Zane, a Danish name, brings to mind the author of adventure books, Zane Gray. The Polish name, Zbigniew, means “to dispel anger,” surely a hopeful name for a hurricane (as well as for a National Security Advisor).

Zelda (the frenzied and sad Mrs. Fitzgerald), Zenobia, Zephaniah ... the list goes on and on.

My favorite candidate for an “X” hurricane is Xanthippe. History tells us that Socrates’ wife was known all over Athens as “Xanthippe the Shrew.” Her nagging is well documented, and one can imagine the invective (and possibly the occasional clay pot) she hurled at her maddening husband, who answered every question with another question and spent most of his days sitting around the marketplace surrounded by adoring students. Hurricanes may rage in and then move along, but Xanthippe’s fury has rolled on down through the ages.

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