Naming Typhoons: what’s next on the list, milk pudding or the God of Wind?

Source: NASA via Wikipedia

2006’s Bohpa, Maria and Saomai. Source: NASA via Wikipedia

Arriving in Hong Kong last weekend, I was swiftly greeted by Typhoon Utor, the strongest typhoon of the season and first “T8” of the year. (“T8” in Hong Kong-speak means that all schools and most offices and stores are closed.)

Waking with jet-lag at 4:30 am to the sound of wind-driven rain battering the windows, I used the early hours of the day to research typhoon* naming conventions. I learned that while originally numbers or letters were used, eventually proper names were deemed necessary for clarity.

It all started in the 19th Century when a droll Australian weather forecaster thought it would be amusing to name tropical cyclones after politicians. This allowed him to say the-then equivalent of things like “CY Leung is causing great distress” or “Xi is wandering aimlessly around the Pacific.”

Decades later, American military meteorologists cribbed the idea and started naming typhoons after their girlfriends and wives. Hence the long-standing practice of naming tropical cyclones after women was established. Later, to keep things fair, men’s names were also added to the rotation.

The typhoons that hit the northwest Pacific, however, no longer follow this convention (Japan, Korea, China, Hong Kong, Vietnam, Philippines, Thailand, Laos, etc). In 2000, the 14 countries making up the “WMO’s Typhoon Committee” decided to let each country submit 10 names. The combined list of 140 names are rotated through alphabetically according to the English name of the country who submitted the name. If a particular storm is deemed especially destructive, its name is retired from the list.

Keeping with tradition, some of the words on this list are people’s names:

  • Bopha (woman’s name)
  • Wipha (woman’s name)
  • Vicente (man’s name)

Many are plants and animals:

  • Yagi (goat)
  • Gaemi (ant)
  • Toraji (flower)
  • Kajiki (Dorado fish)
  • Neoguri (raccoon dog)

Others are geographic or place names:

  • Kai Tak (the old Hong Kong airport)
  • Halong (bay in Vietnam)
  • Nanmadol (Micronesia’s “Venice of the Pacific”)
  • Lion Rock (peak in Hong Kong)

Interestingly a few are inanimate objects:

  • Bebinca (Macanese milk pudding)
  • Tembin (a weighing device)
  • Guchol (turmeric spice)

Fittingly a handful are mythological:

  • Haishen (God of Sea)
  • Mekkhala (Angel of Thunder)
  • Fengshen (God of Wind)
  • Rammasun (God of Thunder)

Finally, even verbs are used:

  • Omais (wandering around)
  • Lupit (cruel)
  • Danas (to experience or feel)
  • Maliksi (fast)

Understanding that typhoons can be terribly destructive and scary, but having weathered this week’s relatively tame T8 cooped up at home with two jet lagged children, I might personally re-name Typhoon Utor something like “Cabin Fever,” “Black Coffee,” “Time Standing Still” or “Cartoon Network is Mind-Numbing (in a bad way).”

“Utor” incidentally is the Marshallese word for “squall line” and was submitted to the list by the US.

Did Utor impact you? If you belonged to the “Typhoon Committee” what name would you add to the rotation?


*Typhoon = hurricane = tropical cyclone. See this National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration FAQ page for details.


18 responses to “Naming Typhoons: what’s next on the list, milk pudding or the God of Wind?

    • Ah, that’s right! I didn’t mention that the Philippines uses it’s completely own and separate naming system that the rest of the NW Pacific Rim! Your Labuyo was our Utor.

  1. Thanks for explaining the convention! I never understood where typhoon names come from, but thanks to this post, now I do! Hope this T8 passes w/out major incident so you can get on w/your usual outside routines.

    • It’s pretty much over now. Just a little overcast and windy. In my corner of Hong Kong, it all seemed pretty tame. That said, it did sink a cargo ship near some islands that are part of Zhuhai.

  2. Interesting!

    I really like the idea of using politicians (or celebrities). I guess for hurricanes in my neck of the woods: “Mr. T just smashed through the Keys” or “George W Bush just fizzled out 100 miles offshore”

  3. An interesting read – I knew that different countries submitted names but had no idea that they could literally be anything! I’ll have to have a look next time we get a typhoon to find out what its name means!

  4. Apparently there’s another big one headed for Taiwan right now. A typhoon “disaster.” Sometimes their results were disastrous, but usually it seemed to me that things like tsunamis do worse damage… In any event, I agree that the names are silly! Hope things have calmed down there now!

    • Couldn’t help but look: the typhoon headed for Taiwan right now is called “Trami” meaning a “a kind of tree belonging to the rose family.” Sweet name, but not really very comforting if one’s house is flooded!

      Here in Hong Kong all is calm (and swelteringly hot) again.

  5. You know, growing up my mother always told me that typhoons hitting Taiwan are named after women, by bored and horny American servicemen abroad. (Yet another old wives’ tale that’s never left the Chang household.)

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