What’s In a Name?

Indeed, the rumors are true:  The Northeastern United States has just gotten hammered by a massive winter storm forever to be known as Nemo.

The Mid-Atlantic Corridor brought to its knees by a meteorological force named for an adorable animated clownfish.

OK, so the Weather Channel insists the moniker is not principally inspired by America’s favorite aquatic Pixar protagonist, but rather by some combination of its Latin origin, meaning “no one,” and the gruff sea captain from Jules Verne’s Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea.

This explanation is plausible enough, as a glance at the full list of past and future names for this year’s large-scale winter storms finds a distinctly classical and literary tinge.

Noticed or not, we have already experienced snowy extravaganzas with names such as Athena, Caesar, Helen and Jove.  Still to come are Winter Storms Plato, Virgil and—presumably as the grand finale—Zeus.  (Wouldn’t that last one be more appropriate for a lightning storm?)

This is the first year the Weather Channel has employed a predetermined roster of designations for wintertime events, although the practice has existed for tropical storms and hurricanes since the 1940s.  This new addition seemed slow to catch on at first, but has suddenly become ubiquitous—undoubtedly due both to the current storm’s size as well as the aforementioned Pixar connection.

Officially, the purpose of extending the practice of personifying weather systems is precisely for ease of identification.

“Naming winter storms will raise the awareness of the public, which will lead to more pro-active efforts to plan ahead, resulting in less impact and inconvenience overall,” writes the Weather Channel’s Tom Niziol.  “Coordination and information sharing should improve between government organizations as well as the media, leading to less ambiguity and confusion when assessing big storms that affect multiple states.”

Some have accused the whole business of being an elaborate marketing ploy by the meteorological media behemoth.  In the uber-capitalist society we inhabit, one can only respond, “Why shouldn’t it be?”

The move can be both a savvy PR tactic and a smart social innovation.  The pertinent question is whether the latter is in fact true.  Jeer as we might, I dare say that it is.

To be sure, it is rather alarming to consider that coordination and allocation of resources in a major snowstorm would be affected by whether the storm is given artificial human characteristics.  One would very much hope to the contrary—that such essential services would take care of themselves based on conditions on the ground.

Yet one can nonetheless understand the logic underpinning Niziol’s justification for the system, which thus far has shown to be reasonably accurate, at least in the realm of social networking.

The deeper explanation for why this might be relates to the greater power of names in general.

The existence of a name engenders a close and more personal relationship between two or more entities than might otherwise come about.  It generates empathy and understanding.  It is an identity that is, by definition, relatable.

It is why the savvier anti-abortion advocates attach the pronouns “he” and “she” to descriptions of a fetus, or why the parents of a kidnapped child will appeal to the kidnapper on TV using the child’s name as often as possible.  The title of David Pelzer’s memoir A Child Called “It” is instinctively chilling, whether or not one knows what the book is about.

Of course, in the case of a nor’easter the identification is a negative one, but is no less personal:  The idea is to demystify and equalize, making a grand act of nature seem more manageable and less alien to those who will need to deal with it.  “Nemo” is somehow less threatening than “blizzard” or “snowpocalypse.”

Whether this naming initiative will prove to truly make a difference beyond the psychological, we have yet to determine.  Indeed, it is possible such a thing can never be assessed with any real certainty, and we reserve the right to remain skeptical.  The more successful aspects of the management of Hurricane Sandy, for instance, were much more the result of dogged personalities such as Governor Chris Christie than the personality of the storm itself.

Even if the appellation is shown to have had a negligible impact on the Great Blizzard of 2013, we can expect the new practice to have staying power, if for no other reason than our amusement.  After all, linguistic comic relief could hardly be more germane than when an entire region of the country is buried under several feet of snow.  It will serve, if only figuratively, to lighten the load.


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