One of the pet peeves of style books these days is the habit of referring to storm systems with personal pronouns like “she” or “him.” Humanizing the weather has fallen out of favor, and that’s great news because the language tended to be quite sexist.
For about 25 years, from 1953 to 1978, the National Weather Service used only female names for storms. It was fashionable to speak of “her fury” or “her temper,” as if the storm were a woman scorned. They were “fickle” storms that “teased the coast.”
Although storms today are now named with both female and male names, I believe that the media are still more likely to refer to female-named storms as “she” than they are to refer to male-named storms as “he.”
As an experiment, I decided to do a quick Google search to get a feel for the way people are mentioning Hurricane Sandy online right now. “Sandy,” after all, is both a male and female name. (I used to work with a guy named Sandy, and I used to date a woman named Sandy back in college.)
Here’s what I found:
- “Hurricane Sandy and her”: 2,130 search results. Examples include “her rampage,” “her spiraling formation,” “her swell,” and “her whirlwind of trouble.”
- “Hurricane Sandy and his”: 0 results.
- “Hurricane Sandy and its”: 9,910 results. Examples include “its gargantuan hype” and “its potential to become a ‘Frankenstorm.’”
No one is calling Sandy a “he”—but as it turns out, there’s a good reason for that: The weather service alternates male and female names of storms, and “Sandy” is definitely a female name in this case, sandwiched as it is between “Rafael” and “Tony.”
So I needed to do another test. I decided to compare this year’s Hurricane Issac (male name) with last year’s Hurricane Irene (female name). I figured these were comparable storms that had come and gone with some media hue and cry, so they would make suitable test subjects.
Again I turned to Google for answers. Here’s what I found:
- “Hurricane Isaac” + “his fury”: 2,110 results
- “Hurricane Irene” + “her fury”: 2,430 results
As you can see, people were more likely to mention “her fury” when talking about Irene than they were “his fury” with Isaac. Also, even though a difference of only 320 search results may not seem like a big deal at first glance, I’ll point out that, overall, Hurricane Irene was mentioned 1.2 million fewer times than Hurricane Isaac.
So the question is, why does this habit of calling female storms “she” continue?
I found an interesting theory from someone on a grammar website. This person believes men feminize inanimate objects “when the object is not fully understood and/or not fully under their control and therefore can be characterized as ‘fickle.’” A storm with “feminine” features, then, may allow these men “the hope that the object might be subject to cajoling and/or flattery as a means of increasing their odds of survival.” (How incredibly sexist. And absurd.)
I’m not sure I agree with that person’s theory, but it’s an interesting one.
Other examples of feminizing things that are not fully understood:
- “Thar she blows” (when a well strikes oil, or when a whale is spotted at sea, à la Moby-Dick)
- “Fate is a fickle bitch”
- Ships, planes, cars and even whole countries are often referred to as “she”
- And of course, “Mother Nature” herself/itself
Can you think of other examples?
Update: Thanks to Jezebel.com for including this post in a roundup titled “Why Do People Keep Calling Sandy a Bitch?” That piece provides some interesting background on how feminists advocated a change in the way that the National Weather Service gave storms only women’s names.