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Is Dorian a ‘her-icane’ or a ‘him-icane?’ Untangling the weird history of storm names

Andrea, Barry and Chantal have come and gone. Dorian is already battering shorelines as it makes its way north, and the likes of Humberto and Karen have yet to be seen.

The World Meteorological Organization assigned this motley crew of names to “tropical cyclones” — also known as hurricanes and tropical storms — in 2019.

But storm names weren’t always equally divided by gender, and as category 2 Hurricane Dorian heads for the Carolinas, the Twitterverse wants to know: boy or girl?

What is Dorian?

Hurricanes, much like the seating chart in a second-grade classroom, alternate boy-girl-boy-girl, according to the Farmers’ Almanac. Per the National Hurricane Center, Dorian was preceded by Chantal and will be followed by Erin — suggesting this storm is a “he.”

But the name itself appears to be unisex, if literature and Italian cinema tell us anything.

Oscar Wilde’s title character in his 1890 novel “A Picture of Dorian Gray” is described as a beautiful and wealthy young man.

Dorian Gray was also a female actress born in Italy and known for her 1956 role in the Italian comedy “Toto, Peppino, and the Hussy,” in which she played the hussy, according to IMDB.

But Hurricane Dorian is probably not the first gender-neutral storm.

Sandi Duncan, managing editor of the Farmers’ Almanac, told McClatchy news group in an email Tuesday that Hurricane Sandy was also non-binary.

How a storm is named

Hurricanes in the Atlantic are named according to one of six lists rotated yearly, meaning the list for 2019 will not be used again until 2025, according to the World Meteorological Organization.

A name may be removed or “retired” after a particularly deadly or costly hurricane like Katrina in 2005 and Sandy in 2012.

Dennis Feltgen of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration told Atlas Obscura those names should be short and “recognizable to the people whom the storm actually affects.”

“It wouldn’t make any sense if you’ve got cyclone going off India, to call it Eugene,” he said, according to the travel guide.

Where it started

British meteorologist Clement Wragge started giving storms recognizable names in the late 1800s, according to Atlas Obscura.

What started with inspiration from Greek and Roman mythology soon evolved to “Polynesian damsels” — i.e. Pacific Island women Wragge thought beautiful, the travel guide said.

That practice is thought to have set the precedent for decades worth of feminine-named hurricanes.

Wragge later applied politicians’ names to particularly heinous storms so that he could refer the officials as “causing great distress” or “wandering aimlessly about the Pacific,” according to the History Channel.

But when he died, Wragge’s naming system fell largely by the wayside.

Anthropomorphizing storms returned with U.S. Air Force and Navy meteorologists in World War II who named storms after their wives and girlfriends back home, the History Channel said.

It was thought to be a way of paying tribute to their far-off significant others.

What it became

After a failed attempt at using a phonetically alphabetized list to name storms, the U.S. government opted in the early 1950s to adopt a system similar to that of the military meteorologists — one focused exclusively on femininity, according to the National Hurricane Center.

“Once these storms took on female names, weathermen began talking about them as if they were women,” the History Channel said. “They used sexist clichés to describe their behavior — saying that this one was ‘temperamental,’ or that another was ‘teasing’ or ‘flirting’ with a coastline.”

Roxcy Bolton — notably described in her New York Times obituary as a “tempestuous Florida feminist” — was among those who took issue with the system.

She said women “deeply resent being arbitrarily associated with disaster” and even suggested a replacement word for hurricane — “him-icane,” the New York Times reported.

The government relented in 1978 — the first year in which men’s and women’s names were on the Eastern North Pacific storm lists, according to the National Hurricane Center. The Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico followed suit a year later.

But gender bias persists, according to a 2014 study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Hurricanes named after women are often associated with higher death rates, the study found, in-part because people saw male hurricanes “as riskier and more intense” than their female counterparts.

“We demonstrate that a natural disaster can, merely by being symbolically associated with a given sex through its assigned name, be judged in ways congruent with the corresponding social roles and expectations of that sex,” researchers wrote.

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Hayley is a Real Time reporter at The Charlotte Observer covering breaking news and trending stories in the Carolinas. She also created the Observer’s unofficial bird beat (est. 2015) with a summer full of ornithological-related content, including a story about Barred Owls in love.
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