Anthropomorphism & British Weather

“What’s your name” Coraline asked the cat. ‘Look, I’m Coraline. Okay?”
“Cats don’t have names,” it said.
“No?” said Coraline.
“No,” said the cat. “Now you people have names. That’s because you don’t know who you are. We know who we are, so we don’t need names.” [Neil Gaiman, Coraline]

My brother and sister-in-law were recently driving me to my local train station after a brief trip home to South Wales over the Christmas period. I was idly checking the rail app on my phone to determine whether or not any of the services I hoped to access that day had been cancelled: Storm Frank was hitting the UK in a big way, particularly the North of England, putting areas like Cumbria under siege from torrential rain and winds, and flooding. “Some weather we’ve been having recently, isn’t it?” My brother said, as I half-tuned in to the conversation. “I’d swear it’s got worse since they started giving them names.”

Later that day, as I was passing through the Welsh Marches, I read an article on The Guardian website that seemed to reiterate what my brother had put voice to a few hours earlier. In an article entitled Does a storm cause more or less pain if it has a human name? the writer laid out the history of the naming of storms.

According to the weather historian Philip Eden, the very first person to do so was an expatriate British meteorologist, Clement Wragge, who was in charge of the Queensland state meteorological department during the late 19th century and gave names to tropical cyclones to make them more memorable.

But it was not until the late 1940s that his counterparts in the US realised that names were far easier to remember than the standard convention, which simply used the year and a specific number. Giving each individual storm a name – which was made official in 1953 – made a lot of sense in a country where more than one major weather event can occur at the same time.

At first, the convention was to use female names. But from the late 1970s onwards, after protests against sexism, male names were finally added to the list.

Putting aside the innate sexism involved in only giving storms female names (women being, of course, temperamental and destructive in their worst moods) it seems a very American thing to do, to name a weather front: the Met Office, however, has begun to do the same. And so far we have had the likes of Abigail, Barney, Desmond and Frank, determinedly prosaic names, to draw our attention to them in a way which, to my mind, seems to heighten their importance whilst simultaneously suggesting that they are not important. It’s not simply another rainy day: it’s Storm Abigail, tearing up the Welsh coastline, or Storm Frank, battering the already beleaguered citizens of York.

When we name something, we attempt to exert authority over it. In America, so sayeth The Guardian article, the naming of different weather systems was so as to differentiate one from another in a country where many different weather systems proliferate. What is the reason for doing so in the UK?

I could look to Bourdieu and suggest that the naming of things like storms is simply another form of social classification: after all, as Bourdieu says:

principles of division, inextricably logical and sociological, function within and for the purposes of the struggle between social groups…What is at stake in the struggles about the meaning of the social world is power over the classificatory schemes and systems which are the basis of the representations of the groups and therefore of their mobilisation and demobilisation. [479]

Bourdieu talks about “occupational titles”, the selection of labels intended to increase social recognition. In giving the storms a name, then, we are enhancing their status as something to be considered important. Conversely, however, their labels are almost embarrassingly pedestrian. What does this suggest? That storms are meant to appeal to the bourgeoise, to the Abigails and Franks of the world; an acceptable conversational topic in a world often agonisingly on the brink of some huge conflict. Or that in giving them these conventional names we are at one and the same time implying importance and removing it. And who names the storms? Who has power over their classification?

Bourdieu said that culture is often popularised to appeal to the masses, and that cultural artefacts which stem from “pop” culture are decried as of less importance than “proper” culture. I wonder, then, in this age of fracking and increasingly bad weather inextricably linked by many to climate change, the naming of these storms is meant to undermine their importance in some way, to make us think that they’re not significant?

In Ursula Le Guin’s The Earthsea Trilogy a magician’s power comes from his knowledge of the names of things like, for example:

The true name of the falcon, to which falcon must come…for magic consists in this, the true naming of a thing. [46-47]

And the importance of naming things is not lost in the digital, either, because the correct name can mean the difference between an effective resource and an underused one. A programmer’s power is therefore no different to that of a wizard, if we say code is a variation of the Old Speech [Le Guin, 46-47].

In The Power of Names: In Culture and in MathematicsLoren Graham, a Professor of History of Science Emeritus at MIT, discusses the concept of naming in Mathematics.

The great Russian-French mathematician Alexander Grothendieck, still alive but no longer active as a mathematician, put a heavy emphasis on “naming” as a way to gain cognitive power over mathematical objects even before they have been understood. One observer of Grothendieck’s work wrote, “Grothendieck had an air for choosing striking evocative names for new concepts; indeed, he saw the act of naming mathematical objects as an integral part of their discovery, as a way to grasp them even before they have been entirely understood.” Mathematicians occasionally observe that, on the basis of intuition, they sometimes develop concepts that are at first ineffable and resist definition; these concepts must be named before they can be brought under control and properly enter the mathematical world. Naming can be the path toward that control. [p.231]

Names, then, are important things. They can mean social status, and a way of giving understanding to the ineffable. They can mean the difference between the success and failure of an endeavour (who amongst us hasn’t spend hours agonising of the title of a journal article or essay?). They can mean the difference between magic and mundanity. Sometimes, perhaps, they can even just be names.

If you were wondering, my train wasn’t cancelled.