Please Don’t Call a Hurricane a “She”

Photo of the eye of a hurricane with the word SHE artistically overlaid in the clouds.
Why do people call storms “she”? (Photo illustration)

One of the pet peeves of style books these days is the habit of referring to storm systems with personal pronouns such as “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 Isaac (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?

Dave Baker

View posts by Dave Baker
Hi, I'm Dave Baker, founder and copy chief of Super Copy Editors. I have more than two decades of professional proofreading and copy editing experience, including work for The Nation magazine, The New York Times, and The Times-Picayune of New Orleans, where I shared two staff Pulitzer Prizes after Hurricane Katrina. Today, I have put together a hand-picked team of copy editors, and we especially love working with ad agencies, marketing departments, and education companies to make their text as polished as possible. Learn more here.

7 Comments

  1. James
    October 27, 2012

    Sometimes people refer to god as a she. Everyone knows he is an elderly caucasian man with a flowing white beard and a robe.

    Anyway, before the ridiculousness of assigning gender to storms is the ridiculousness of humanizing them. They don’t feel rage or fury or have tempers.

    Reply
    1. David Deleon Baker
      October 27, 2012

      And they don’t “tease” us either.

      Reply
  2. Jane Cowan
    October 28, 2012

    I am a Canadian freelance academic copy-editor who has lost most of her work as a result of university cutbacks. So far as Sandy is concerned, I have frequently been told by American friends that Sandy is a girl’s name, as the evidence shows in this case. Being of Scottish heritage and living in a country with a large Scottish ancestral connection, Sandy has always been a boy’s name to me, my date to the high school graduation dance, one of my Australian nephews, one of my father’s golfing partners, and so on.
    Of course, I also get surprise remarks about my grandson’s Kit’s name, no one seeming to remember even Kit Carson in the States, no matter about Kit Marlowe, the dramatist. As someone was arguing on a weekly national call-in show today, bicycling is not even a sport, just a weekend effort by those who gear and dress up to go to Starbucks, and doping is prevalent in all the major sports, so why does Lance Armstrong get headlines and hundreds of lines of print in the most prestigious newspapers while real news is hidden for those interested to find out. It’s a new ignorant world out there as all surveys reveal.

    Reply
  3. jeff
    October 30, 2012

    “… I believe that the media are still more likely …” “Media” is a group, and, as
    such, deserves the singular predicate, is.

    Reply
    1. David Deleon Baker
      October 30, 2012

      Hi, Jeff. To quote The Associated Press, “In the sense of mass communication…the word [media] is plural.” The New York Times also chooses to keep it plural.

      Reply
  4. Jeff
    September 20, 2017

    I will call a storm with a female name she if I desire.
    Get over it.
    This storm called Maria is a bitch!

    Reply
  5. nlj
    December 5, 2017

    Of course female names are more appropriate for HER – ricanes. No one calls them HIM – icanes, do they? So surprised NO ONE brought up this OLD argument! 🙂

    Reply

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