Predictably, there have been a lot of blog posts related in one way or another to hurricanes the past few weeks, including several on the language side.
I don’t want to trivialize any natural disaster: I live in New England, which was largely spared, but I’ve lived and worked in New York and New Jersey and am familiar with a number of places that were flooded or damaged. Friends and relatives live in some of the affected (but not catastrophically hit) areas. Some were without power for a week, which in the grand scheme of things isn’t all that bad. I certainly feel for those who have lost homes, friends and family, and much more than a refrigerator full of groceries. They need help, if you’re able.
But I don’t want to dwell on that today. Instead, one of the many things that crossed my mind during the continuous and incessant (but generally informative) news coverage of Hurricane Sandy related to an event in general hurricane history from a few decades back.
Probably anyone over the age of 40 has a memory, however dim, of a change that was made to hurricane naming in the late 1970s (1978 and 1979, to be precise). At that time the US (through the National Hurricane Center, part of the National Weather Service) began using male names for about half of all hurricanes. How we came to this naming system is interesting, and I’ll get there shortly.
The word “himicane” was coined at that time, to make a distinction between the male-named storms and the female-named “her-icanes” (which is how “hurricane” is typically pronounced, at least across much of the Eastern US).
The etymology of “himicane” is very simple: it seems to have sprung up only as an exclusively male variant of hurricane, and I’ve never encountered it anywhere except in jest. In fact, I can’t find it in any major dictionary (excluding the Urban Dictionary, which isn’t exactly authoritative).
Hurricane has a more interesting background. The origin of the word — in English — isn’t much in doubt: it came through Spanish, out of the Caribbean. Where the Spanish got it gives rise to a little more dispute. Most sources agree that the word comes from a Caribbean Indian word for a strong wind (or storm), but precision breaks down there. Many note the word as coming from the Taino language, others from Carib (and some hedge and point to both). Others go further back and suggest that it’s actually originally Mayan (and offer Juracan as the source Mayan word). While most record that hurricane (or huracan, or one of many variations: see below) meant ‘a great wind,’ and was named after a god of winds or storms, a few go further and add a value judgement: Huracan is described as the god of evil. I’m not an expert in pre-Columbian mythology, and leave final rulings in that department to the experts.
Word origins aside, there are two other things worth discussing when it comes to hurricanes. One is how modern our current storm naming system really is. The other is how many variant spellings this word had in its first few centuries as part of the English language.
Using male names (“himicanes”) was strongly resisted by some at the time of the change (’78-’79). The argument went that hurricanes had historically always been female, and so this was the breaking of a time-honored tradition (sadly, you can still easily find traces of this reflexive sexist attitude 30 years later if you search online).
But this is not so: the fact is that hurricanes were only given exclusively female names for a relatively short time – only a single generation. The US weather service officially used female names for hurricanes beginning only in 1953. The idea had been proposed before (in 1941), and had been used unofficially by military meteorologists for some storms during and after World War II. But before 1953, there was no official naming standard — in fact, most storms weren’t named at all — and the informal system was not exclusively female. Hurricanes were instead often remembered by their dates (“the hurricane of 1936” which struck New England), or a combination of their dates and place of landfall (“the 1926 Miami hurricane”) or, because they most often struck Spanish-influenced parts of the Caribbean, by the saint’s day of their greatest effect (“the San Felipe hurricane”).
When the World Meteorological Organization voted in 1978 to include male names in the naming system, female hurricane names had actually been the norm for only a quarter of a century.
Despite the lack of standards, storms had been named occasionally in the past. Clement Wragge, a colorful Australian meteorologist, is sometimes credited as the first to use women’s names for storms beginning in the 1880s or 1890s (although it didn’t catch on). I’m willing to take this idea on faith, but the sketchy sources I’ve found so far suggest that Wragge actually named storms after all sorts of things that struck his fancy: Greek letters, Polynesian gods, even unpopular Australian politicians. That lack of exclusivity would hardly earn credit for the female hurricane idea.
In fact, even the military’s supposed adoption of female names during the 1940s is made somewhat suspect by the historical record: hurricanes throughout the 1940s and into the early 1950s were largely unnamed, or were given names from a phonetic alphabet (hence “Hurricane Easy,” which struck Florida in 1950).
Hurricane has been the standard spelling of the word in English for some time: you can find examples from the first half of the 18th century, and by the mid-19th century it seems to have settled in. However, since it’s first appearance in English (mid-16th century), and even into the 20th century, variant spellings have come and gone, with some enjoying solid popularity before fading. When an English word goes back 1000 years, it’s not uncommon to find dozens of variant spellings; but it’s more unusual for a word to retain more than a handful of variants when it jumps in from another language, especially during the last couple of centuries.
However, hurricane comes with a long list. Here are just a few (for convenience and ease of reference, I’ve pulled these from the OED’s citations): furacane, furacano, haurachana, herycano, uracani, hurlecano, herricano, hyrracano, hero-cane, harry-cain. At least 33 different spellings are offered in the main entry (even more, if you adopt a liberal reading).
Hurricane as a word didn’t remain exclusively tied to weather for very long, either. If the word was generally recognized in English by the second decade of the 1600s (when citations seem to stop defining it, or including appositives), by the 1630s and 1640s citations begin to speak of metaphorical and figurative hurricanes, not physical storms.
It can be easy to just sit back at a distance and be thankful that a disaster has struck someone else, not you or anyone you know. What makes a person better than that is their capacity to reach out beyond their immediate experience and help those who have been affected. I hope enough people will do that in the aftermath of Sandy. Maybe in the wake of the real hurricane, we can create a figurative hurricane of relief for our fellow citizens.