Brewing up a (tropical) storm

Often all too easily and quickly labelled ‘paradise’ there’s a tendency to forget that tropical parts of the world, due to their climate, can be periodically subject to devastating cyclones. As the 2012-2013 cyclone season draws, theoretically, to a close in my part of the world – the south-west Indian Ocean – here are some cyclone-related language facts I’ve rounded up.

  • ‘Cyclone’, ‘typhoon’, and ‘hurricane’ and are all different words for the same phenomena, used in the Indian, Pacific, Atlantic Oceans respectively. ‘Cyclone’ is also used in Australia & Indonesia, and ‘hurricane’ in the Caribbean, Gulf of Mexico, and eastern North Pacific. (Note that as I live in the Indian Ocean I’ve used the term ‘cyclone’ throughout this post).
  • Etymologically ‘cyclone’ comes from the Ancient Greek kyklon “moving in a circle, whirling around,” present participle of kykloun “move in a circle, whirl,” from kyklos “circle”. In the modern world it was first used in 1848 by a British East India Company official, Henry Piddington, to describe the devastating storm of December 1789 in Coringa, India [1].

Cyclone Gamede hit Reunion in 2007 and broke most of the world’s rainfall records (already held by Reunion!).

  • ‘Hurricane’ is a partially deformed adaptation from the Spanish huracan/furacan from an Arawakan (W. Indies) word for the Taino storm god Juracán, whom the Taínos believed dwelled on El Yunque mountain and, when he was upset, sent the strong winds and rain upon them. In Portuguese, it became furacão. The OED records 39 different spellings, mostly from the late 16th century, including forcane, herrycano, harrycain, hurlecane. The modern form became frequent from 1650, and established after 1688. Shakespeare uses hurricano (in “King Lear” and “Troilus and Cressida”), but in reference to waterspouts. [2] [3]
  • The word typhon (Τυφῶνexists in Ancient Greek, personified as a giant, father of the winds, perhaps from typhein “to smoke”. The current meaning of the word, in reference to titanic storms in the East Indies, first appears in Europe in Portuguese in the mid-16th century. It is probably of Sinitic origin, Mandarin 大风 (dàfēng, “big wind”), Cantonese 大風 (daai fung, “big wind”), via Arabic طوفان (ṭūfān), Persian  توفان (tufân), and Hindi तूफ़ान (tūfān) meaning “big cyclonic storm.” So although the Arabic word sometimes is said to be from the Greek it is unrelated and the latter has likely contaminated the eastern word. [4] [5]

What’s in a name?

Why name cyclones? Due to their long-term persistence, and the need for a unique identifier in issuing forecasts and warnings, cyclones are given names to ease communication between forecasters and the general public regarding forecasts, watches, and warnings. Since cyclones can often last a week or longer and more than one can occur in the same basin at the same time, names can reduce the confusion about which cyclone is being described. According to one source [6], the first use of a proper name for a cyclone was by an Australian forecaster early in the 20th century who named them “after political figures whom he disliked. By properly naming a hurricane, the weatherman could publicly describe a politician (who perhaps was not too generous with weather-bureau appropriations?) as ‘causing great distress’ or ‘wandering aimlessly about the Pacific.'”! The official practice of naming cyclones started in 1945; until then as well as annoying politicians they had been named after mythological creatures, saints and place names. Generally cyclones are named when they are judged to have sustained windspeeds of 65 km/h, although at this stage they will still only be a ‘tropical storm’ and not yet a ‘cyclone’.

A consequence of cyclone Dumile, January 2013, Reunion Island

  • North Atlantic – cyclones are named by the U.S. National Hurricane Center. Six lists of names, alternating between masculine and feminine, are used in alphabetical order, and maintained by the World Meteorological Organization with them rotating on a yearly basis.
  • Eastern Pacific – there are two Regional Specialized Meteorological Centers (RSMCs) who assign names, in Miami and Honolulu. Should a cyclone pass from one area of responsibility to another it retains its original name.
  • Southern Pacific – cyclones are named by the Regional Specialized Meteorological Center in Nadi, Fiji (RSMC Nadi).  Cyclones that move into the Australian region retain their original name.
  • Australian Region – there are 5 different official Tropical Cyclone Warning Centers who assign names to cyclones (Jakarta, Port Moresby, Perth, Darwin, or Brisbane). However as three of the warning centres are run by the Bureau of Meteorology of Australia, only 3 lists of names exist.  In Australia the names are assigned in alphabetical order, alternating between masculine and feminine names, with the lists used in rotating order without regard to year. A name may be skipped if it is not deemed appropriate when it is due to be used (e.g. it is the same as the name of a public figure who is in the news for a sensitive or controversial reason)!

Images of the seven tropical cyclone “basins” where storms occur on a regular basis around the world and the Regional Speciliazed Meteorological Centers in charge.

For all of the cases above significant cyclones have their names retired from the lists with a replacement name selected at the next World Meteorological Organization (WMO), Regional Association IV Hurricane Committee meeting.

  • Northwestern Pacific Ocean – there are two separate agencies who assign names to cyclones which often results in a cyclone having two names. The Japan Meteorological Agency (JMA) names cyclones to the north of the equator between the 180° and 100°E. Names are contributed by the 14 states or territories members of the ESCAP/WMO Typhoon Committee who each submit 10 names, which are used in alphabetical order, by the English name of the country. The Philippine Atmospheric, Geophysical and Astronomical Services Administration assigns names to cyclones which move into or form in their area of responsibility (135°-115°E and 5°-25°N) even if the cyclone has had a name assigned to it by the JMA.
  • North Indian Ocean basin – the Regional Specialised Meteorological Centre in New Delhi has assigned names since 2006. There is no retirement of cyclone names here as the list of names is only scheduled to be used once before a new list of names is drawn up. Should it move into the basin from the Western Pacific it retains its original name.
  • South-west Indian Ocean – the Regional Specialized Meteorological Centre on Réunion Island decides when to name a cyclone. However it is the Sub-Regional Tropical Cyclone Advisory Centres in Mauritius and Madagascar who actually name the systems. Mauritius names the cyclone should it intensify between 55°-90°E; and between 30°-55°E Madagascar assigns the name. New name lists are used every year, whilst a name is normally only used once thus no names are retired.

Track map of all storms in the 2012–13 South-West Indian Ocean cyclone season. The points show the location of the storm at 6-hour intervals.

After a few relatively quiet years this year’s cyclone season has been pretty active in the SW Indian Ocean, as you can see from the map above. Nine systems were named.

A few proverbs and sayings based on storms:

  • “Any port in a storm”
  • “In the eye of a storm”
  • “Storm in a teacup” (Incir cekirdegini doldurmaz – “Storm in a walnut shell” in Turkish)
  • “Whoever sows wind shall harvest storm.”

Finally I’d like to leave you with the following links:

Do you live in a cyclone-prone part of the world? Do you have any storm-related proverbs to add to the list? Let me know in the comments.

Further reading:

Sri Lanka official sorry for name of cyclone Mahasen – Sri Lanka‘s top meteorologist has publicly apologised for the naming of a recent deadly cyclone after a revered third century ruler, King Mahasen.


[1] [2] [4]

[3] [5]

[6] Dunn, G.E. and B.I. Miller (1960): Atlantic Hurricanes, Louisiana State Univ. Press, Baton Rouge, Louisiana, 377pp, quoted here.


3 responses

  1. Pingback: Around the web – February 2022 | A Smart Translator's Reunion

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