Ask a Librarian

Naming Hurricanes

December 20, 2008

Question: How do they come up with the names given to hurricanes? Are they always female names?

Answer: "Maria" the storm from George R. Stewart's 1941 novel, "Storm" inspired the practice of naming hurricanes after people. The storms are named alphabetically, with the first storm of the year earning a name beginning with 'A'. The letters Q, U, X, Y, and Z are not included because there are so few names that begin with those letters. In 1978, the practice of using only female names was replaced with the current system of using male and female names on an alternate basis.

According to the National Hurricane Center, hurricanes were once named for the particular saint's day on which the hurricane occurred. For example, "Hurricane San Felipe" struck Puerto Rico on Sept. 13, 1876. When another storm struck Puerto Rico on the same day 52 years later, it was named "Hurricane San Felipe the Second." This practice was later replaced with latitude- longitude positions, but that practice proved error-ridden and confusing.

Since 1953, hurricanes of the Caribbean and Atlantic Ocean have been named by the National Hurricane Center (NHC). They are now maintained and updated by an international committee of the World Meteorological Association (WMO). The WMO says that names are easier to remember than numbers and technical terms.

They use six lists of names in annual rotation repeating every six years. The 2008 lists will be used again in 2014.

According to the WMO, "the only time that there is a change in the list, is if a storm is so deadly or costly that the future use of its name on a different storm would be inappropriate for reasons of sensitivity."

Tropical Cyclone Programme, found on the web at, contains details on the process of naming hurricanes worldwide. You can also read the article, "The Naming of Hurricanes", on page 627 of Chase's Calendar of Events (2008), available at the Library's Reference Desk or visit the National Hurricane Center's Web site at

Today's question was answered by the Adult Reference Team at Tompkins County Public Library. Send your questions by e-mail to, or call 272-4557 or visit the library at 101 E. Green St.

Page last modified May 3, 2012