Historical precedents

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John McIntyre rules against "Frankenstorm":

Yesterday, I sent this message to the newsroom staff: We will not be using the word “Frankenstorm” in coverage of Hurricane Sandy, because the term trivializes a serious and potentially deadly event. It’s acceptable in direct quotes, but even there we shouldn’t overdo it.

Christopher C. Burt, "Late Season Tropical Storms that have affected the U.S. north of Hatteras", 10/26/2012, surveys a dozen examples from history, including one of special interest to fans of Benjamin Franklin:

David M. Ludlum in his classic book ‘Early American Hurricanes: 1492-1870’ (American Meteorological Society, 1963) said this about the storm:

The storm that raced northward along the Atlantic Coast on November 2, 1743 deserves a unique place in the annals of American meteorology. Not only was this the first tropical storm in America to be measured accurately by scientific instruments, but it also provided Benjamin Franklin with a key to unlock for the first time the secret of a storm’s forward movement.

Franklin noted that in Philadelphia the barometer fell to 29.35” (994 mb) and the damage done both on land and at sea was “the worst in [20] years”. The same was said in Boston where a storm surge overwhelmed the city wharves and flooded the streets of the city. Storm surge flooding was also reported at Piscataqua and damage was reported inland at Newbury, New Hampshire. It has been called the ‘Eclipse Hurricane’ because it occurred during the night of a total lunar eclipse (which Franklin was disappointed to miss because of the storm’s cloud cover). However, Franklin noted the times that the storm struck at various locations between Philadelphia and Boston and the change in prevailing wind directions and thus was able to discern how the path of a storm and its wind circulations were related.

The Great New England Hurricane of 1938 was not "late season" enough to make his list — it make landfall on Sept. 21, and Burt surveys storms that arrived from the last week of October onwards — but it exemplifies an earlier fashion in storm naming, being variously known as "the Yankee Clipper" and "the Long Island Express", due to its extremely rapid forward speed (up to 70 mph). In those days, though, all the naming came in discussions after the fact, since predictions were not very good; so concerns about sensationalizing and/or trivializing major weather events didn't apply in the same way.

When I was growing up in rural eastern Connecticut, people still talked about the 1938 hurricane, because it had re-made the local landscape to a significant extent. We used to pick wild blueberries in the bed of a former lake whose dam had been smashed in 1938 and never replaced — the wreckage of the dam, down a dirt road in the middle of the woods, was the object of some childhood curiosity.

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23 Comments »

  1. Alan Palmer said,

    October 29, 2012 @ 2:24 pm

    If 'Frankenstorm' trivialises a serious and potentially deadly event, what about the practice of giving hurricanes people's names? Surely assigning a random name to a storm that may or may not grow into a hurricane risks trivialising the event even more?

  2. Rubrick said,

    October 29, 2012 @ 2:36 pm

    My problem with "Frankenstorm" is not that it trivializes the event, but that it conveys the wrong impression: that of a storm that is an ungainly monster somehow cobbled together from bits and pieces of other storms.

  3. Faldone said,

    October 29, 2012 @ 2:42 pm

    The term "Frankenstorm", at least in its original intent, is being applied to a storm that is resulting from the combination of hurricane Sandy and a winter storm coming out of Canada, so, yes, it was cobbled together from bits and pieces of other storms.

  4. Arun said,

    October 29, 2012 @ 3:20 pm

    The idea is also that it comes around the time of Halloween.

    I do find it strange that we talk about it as though this trivializes it.

  5. Chandra said,

    October 29, 2012 @ 4:26 pm

    Indeed, "Frankenstorm" seems an almost inevitable epithet for this event, given the circumstances (my understanding is that the hurricane is merging with not just one, but two low-pressure systems from the north and west) and timing – a perfect storm of cultural references, if you will.

    I don't know how to feel about its use being banned in media outlets. Certainly the storm is destructive and potentially deadly, but so were the recent "snowpocalypse" and "snowmageddon", etc. It seems that the potential for offense probably correlates with casualty rates for this kind of thing – nobody would think to come up with a cutesy nickname for, say, the 2004 tsunami in the Indian Ocean, or last year's earthquake in Japan. But for less devastating events, humour is, of course, understandably used to defuse stress and fear.

  6. KeithB said,

    October 29, 2012 @ 4:53 pm

    That is because cutesy names tend to be thought up *before* the event. With earthquakes and tsunami's, you can only report the results *after*.

  7. Rebecca said,

    October 29, 2012 @ 5:29 pm

    In addition to the combination of several storms, I've thought this was a Frankenstom because human causes, in the form of global warming, contributed to its characteristics, perhaps more than usual.

  8. Jeff Carney said,

    October 29, 2012 @ 5:40 pm

    I teach the novel Frankenstein annually. From that perspective, the term does not seem trivial. And then I remember Frankenberry cereal . . .

  9. Ø said,

    October 29, 2012 @ 6:29 pm

    McIntyre says that he's not flatly banning the term–just doesn't want to "belabor it".

  10. JS said,

    October 29, 2012 @ 7:34 pm

    In other Sandy-and-language news, note the recent CNN headline "Storm-related public transit closures leave 10.8 million commuters high, dry." My first reaction was to the strangeness of rendering an idiom like this in headline-ese, though the idiom selected is of course also ironically inapt…

  11. Chandra said,

    October 29, 2012 @ 8:38 pm

    @KeithB – Prof. Liberman gives an example of nicknames given to a natural disaster after the fact. And I'd say that the two events I mentioned were in the news long enough that nicknames would have arisen if people had felt unconstrained by the possibility of causing offense.

  12. John Roth said,

    October 29, 2012 @ 8:57 pm

    @Alan Palmer. The names assigned to North Atlantic tropical storms are a matter of international agreement. See: http://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2012/10/its-only-october-and-were-running-out-of-hurricane-names-for-the-year/264226/

    and

    http://www.xkcd.com/1126/

  13. David Morris said,

    October 29, 2012 @ 10:28 pm

    "Hurricane", "hurricane", "Cyclone" or "cyclone"?

    The Sydney Morning Herald website calls it "Hurricane Sandy", and has a side story about "Cyclone Tracey" (Australia's most famous cyclone). The BBC website has one story about "cyclone Sandy" and another about "Hurricane Sandy".

  14. ajay said,

    October 30, 2012 @ 6:16 am

    The same sort of storm can be called different things in different oceans. A big huge scary swirly storm (to use the technical term) would be a hurricane in the North Atlantic, a cyclone in the Indian Ocean and a typhoon in the Pacific.
    But the generic term for all swirly storms – all swirly weather patterns, really, regardless of strength – is a cyclone. Or an anticyclone depending which way round it is going.

    So Sandy is definitely a cyclone. Whether or not she is a hurricane as well depends on two things: is she in the North Atlantic? (SPOILER: yes.) And is she above a certain level of severity? (Yes)
    Sandy wasn't always a hurricane; she started off as a tropical storm and got stronger. So the BBC may be hedging its bets in order to talk about Sandy both in her current superstar role and before she got big.

    The Cyclone/cyclone thing is similar. A swirly sort of storm off Western Australia would be a cyclone, just as it would be anywhere else. But if it wasn't very strong, it would just be a Moderate Tropical Storm; it wouldn't rise to the rank of being an official Cyclone.

  15. Mr Punch said,

    October 30, 2012 @ 8:16 am

    As an (almost) lifelong New Englander, I can confirm that the Hurricane of 1938 (usually so called) lives on in memory because of its permanent impact on the environment – stands of trees as well as dams, etc. I'd add that none of the named tropical storms (Carol in '54, etc.) comes close; but people talk about the Blizzard of 1978 (not a blizzard at the time, though it qualifies under the revised definition) and occasionally the "Portland Storm" of Thanksgiving 1898, named for a steamship that sank with great loss of life.

  16. Andy Averill said,

    October 30, 2012 @ 8:50 am

    The storm of 38 also destroyed Katharine Hepurn's house in Connecticut, which could almost be described as in, rather than on, Long Island Sound. It was rebuilt the next year.

  17. Mr Fnortner said,

    October 30, 2012 @ 9:13 am

    Regarding H/hurricane This or C/cyclone That, if a thing has a name perhaps the name should be sufficient to identify it. That is, simply call it Frankenstorm or Katrina. Or if the given name is insufficient, why are we not calling it hurricane Hurricane Katrina, for example?

  18. Andy Averill said,

    October 30, 2012 @ 9:25 am

    ^It's almost not a hurricane. Wind speeds 85 mph? Pffft — I've had that much wind in my backyard.

  19. Dan Hemmens said,

    October 30, 2012 @ 6:34 pm

    At the risk of further trivializing the situation, I can't help but wish the memo had been "We will not be using the term 'Frankenstorm' to describe Hurricane Sandy. Frankenstein was the name of the *creator* not of the *monster*…"

  20. Meagen said,

    October 30, 2012 @ 7:40 pm

    "Franken" as a prefix refers, intuitively, to "being cobbled together from pieces of several things, in a parallel to Frankenstein's Monster".

    Which makes sense. The monster is a striking visual that's become deeply ingrained into Western popular culture. There's nothing particularly notable about Frankenstein himself that the more generic term "mad scientist" doesn't cover. So there isn't a useful distinction to be made outside of discussing the original novel. (In which case, you should also give Frankenstein's creation his proper name: Adam.)

  21. David Morris said,

    October 30, 2012 @ 9:45 pm

    It's now "superstorm Sandy". (And the spellchecker doesn't like "superstorm".)

  22. David Fried said,

    October 31, 2012 @ 5:26 pm

    My feeling from the beginning has been that "Hurricane Sandy" is already an unduly familiar nickname. "Hurricane Alexandra" is more respectful and better fits the storm's stately progress.

    And BTW, under the new conventions for naming hurricanes since men's names came in, is "Sandy" supposed to be male or female? Inquiring minds want to know. . .

    David "Franken" Fried

  23. David Fried said,

    October 31, 2012 @ 5:34 pm

    Uh, sorry. I see from the Atlantic magazine link supplied by John Roth that Sandy is indeed a girl. . .

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