Some of the most notorious villains in American history are known by only one name. From Betsy and Camille to Katrina, Ike and Sandy, their legacies are so etched into our collective memory that it only takes a few syllables to recall the terrible days these hurricanes made landfall.
But where do hurricane names come from? Why do we give human names to violent, mindless masses of water and wind? And how do we all agree which name to use? The practice dates back to the 1950s, although people have been naming tropical cyclones for centuries.
Before the 1940s, only the worst storms were given names, usually based on the place or time of year they made landfall: There was the Sea Islands Hurricane of 1893, the Great Galveston Hurricane of 1900, the Miami Hurricane of 1926 and the Labor Day Hurricane of 1935, to name a few. Scientists and forecasters often assigned unofficial numbers to tropical cyclones — Tropical Storm One, Hurricane Two, etc. — but the practice of using more memorable and relatable names didn’t begin until 1950.
That was the first year when Atlantic tropical cyclones received official names, although they still weren’t human ones. These initial names were taken from the Joint Army/Navy Phonetic Alphabet, so the 1950 season featured such bizarrely named storms as Hurricane Dog, Hurricane Easy, Hurricane Jig, Hurricane Item and Hurricane Love. There was also a Tropical Storm How in early October.
This tradition continued for two years, but it had a glaring flaw: The same list of names was recycled every year, so the 1950-’52 seasons each featured a Hurricane Able through at least Hurricane Fox. That became confusing, so in 1953 the U.S. National Hurricane Center began using female human names, which proved far more successful. Not only did it make storm identification easier, but it helped authorities and news outlets spread warnings — and helped the public pay attention to them.
“[N]ames are presumed to be far easier to remember than numbers and technical terms,” the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) explains on its website. “Many agree that appending names to storms makes it easier for the media to report on tropical cyclones, heightens interest in warnings and increases community preparedness.”
The first hurricane names were often inspired by forecasters’ wives, but in 1979 men’s names were added to the mix. The WMO now oversees the master list of names, which alternates between male and female; six lists are rotated annually in the Atlantic, so the 2015 names will be used again in 2021. But when a cyclone is bad enough, its name can be retired to honor victims and survivors. Seventy-eight Atlantic hurricane names have been retired since 1954, including 29 since 2000. Among the most infamous retired hurricane names are Audrey (1957), Betsy (1965), Camille (1969), Hugo (1989), Andrew (1992), Ivan (2004), Katrina (2005), Ike (2008), Irene (2011) and Sandy (2012).
Here are the names for the 2017 Atlantic hurricane season, which runs from June 1 to Nov. 30, according to the National Hurricane Center (NHC):
The season for tropical cyclones in the Pacific Ocean is generally the same, although it officially begins May 15 in the Eastern Pacific. Naming Pacific cyclones is often more complex than in the Atlantic, with different lists for the Eastern, Central and Western Pacific, as well as for Australia, Fiji, Papua New Guinea, the Philippines, the North Indian Ocean and the Southwest Indian Ocean. See the NHC’s list of Pacific storm names for more info.