The Girl Hurricane Effect: Can the Wrong Name Cost Lives?

Jun 4th 2014

I've talked in the past about the effect of hurricanes on baby names. But what about the effect of baby names on hurricanes?

The question isn't as silly as it sounds. A study published this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences concludes that storms given female names turn out deadlier on average than male-named hurricanes, presumably because they prompt different levels of preparedness. "Girl hurricanes" just don't sound as scary.

Not everyone is convinced by this finding (for analysis, see, e.g., CNN, LiveScience, NPR). Critics have pointed out that the effect wasn't found for hurricanes overall, only when the researchers drilled down to the small subset of highly damaging storms. Moreover, they included storms from the pre-1978 era when only girls' names were used. That could make a significant difference, because weather prediction has improved since then, reducing death tolls. And given the number of variables involved with storms, the idea that the name could move the needle simply strikes many as implausible.

In the study's defense, the researchers didn't even count the super-deadly female-named hurricanes Katrina and Audrey in their sample, because they would have skewed the results all on their own. The research team was also canny about names, going beyond just "male" and "female" to look more closely at the signals each name sends.

Accompanying lab studies that asked subjects to predict the severity of storms based on descriptions came up with a name-based threat ranking. While male-named hurricanes were judged more threatening overall, the #1 most serious-sounding storm name was Bertha, a name associated with great size and power since the Big Bertha artillery of WWI. The least-threatening storm name was Dolly, a sweet, down-home diminutive associated with country music and children's toys.

As for plausibility, the finding seems perfectly reasonable to me. Of course people respond to names. That's why we put so much care into the naming of everything, except hurricanes.

People take two kinds of messages from names: information and emotional impressions. The informative side is particularly explicit in the realm of product names. You might never have heard of the product Somnapure, for instance, but you won't be surprised to hear that it's a "natural sleep aid." Personal names, too, send a wealth of informative signals about an individual's sex, age, and cultural background. The name of a hurricane, in contrast, is pre-determined and uninformative.

An uninformative name, though, can still influence our impressions and behavior. A utilitarian 1970s brick apartment complex near me is called "Pheasant Ridge." That name tells you absolutely nothing about the place, as is apparent to anybody considering renting there. Customers can see the development's features, and the total irrelevance of pheasants, with their own two eyes. And yet...don't you think it would be harder to rent the exact same units under a name like "Brick Apartment Block C"?

How could giving a culturally loaded label to a phenomenon which tens of millions of people have to react to not produce any effect? Given the scale at which hurricanes operate, even a subtle shift in the response of a small percentage of people could have serious repurcussions. Frankly, calling a category 5 hurricane "Dolly" seems like a foolhardy underestimation of the power of names.

From a public-policy perspective, what's a better path? Identifying the names that sound scariest to the public could play to social and linguistic prejudices. (Imagine the derogatory effect if you ended up with a list of Arabic and Russian names.) Classic villain names could be effectively menacing, but they're a limited pool with repetitive sounds.

Using surnames instead of given names could take age and sex out of the equation. Non-human storm names, already used in some parts of the world, go even further, but introduce their own confounds. A Hurricane Vulture sounds scarier than a Hurricane Chickadee. Still, solving the naming dilemma now should be a lot easier than rescuing people who fail evacuate in the face of future gently named storms.

The One Hundred Club: Boys' Names on the Verge for 2014

May 28th 2014

Each year, a new crop of names steps in from the fringes to become a significant part of the American name landscape. I mark that transition with a "100 Club": names that reached the threshold of 100 new American babies for the first time last year.

Some of these names will prove to be passing fads that quickly fade. Others, though, are just beginning their climbs and will become fixtures in the schoolyards of tomorrow. Already, four of the names I featured in last year's 100 club (girls, boys) have risen to claim places in the top 1,000 list: Sutton (female), Castiel, Zayn and this year's fastest-rising name Jayceon.

Today I'll introduce the new boys' 100 club. (Stay tuned for the girls!) This is particularly intriguing group, with a biblical bent and some surprisingly deadly choices.

(Note: alternate spellings of more common names are excluded unless the spelling gives the name a distinctly new style and identity.)

The Boys' 100 Club:

Abdullahi (Variant of Abdullah, common in the Horn of Africa. A gradual riser over the past two decades.)

Alaric (5th Century King of the Visigoths! OK, also a vampire hunter in the tv series The Vampire Diaries. So it's a goth name in every sense of the word.)

Ansel (Formerly associated overwhelmingly with photographer Ansel Adams, now rising thanks to actor Ansel Elgort of Divergent and The Fault In Our Stars.)

Aryeh (A biblical name meaning "lion," and part of a major trend toward bible names ending in vowel sounds.)

Bane (The mercenary villain of The Dark Knight Rises; also a word meaning a scourge, curse or poison. A great demonstration of the power of style over meaning.)

Boaz (From the Book of Ruth in the Bible, Boaz features a cool -z ending and the cowboy nickname Bo. This name seems like a strong candidate to rise further.)

Brixton (A district of London, a clothing label, and a wee little step from the popular name Braxton.)

Caius (A Roman name, a saint's name, and now a trendy name thanks to the deadly villain of a recent Final Fantasy video game.)

Dyland (This looks a lot like a Cowboy name – a cross between Western favorites Dillon and Ryland – but actually owes most of its rise to a Puerto Rican reggaeton star.)

Fox (Zippy animal name with many cultural associations, from The X-Files' Fox Mulder to Fox News to Dark Knight character Lucius Fox.)

Keoni (A common Hawaiian name, sometimes called a Hawaiian form of John; pronounced kay-OH-nee.)

Kyden (A tweaking of Kayden that doesn't have as many rhyming names to contend with...yet.)

Lazarus (Two separate biblical figures, one a sore-covered beggar, the other raised from the dead. You might think of Lazarus the point of intersection of this list's Bible and death themes.)

Ledger (Thanks to late actor Heath Ledger, parents hear Ledger as a surname rather than an account book.)

Osiris (The Egyptian God of the Dead, Osiris seems an unlikely baby name choice until you consider the rising popularity of Cyrus. Also a brand of skate shoes.)

Smith (see Wesson, below)

Tadeo (The Spanish form of Thaddeus, featured in the animated film Las Aventuras de Tadeo Jones.)

Truett (Chick-fil-A founder S. Truett Cathy, who was renowned for building his business on conservative Christian principles, retired in 2013. Note the name's double-t ending.)

Wesson (Firearms brand names Smith & Wesson enter the 100 club hand in hand, demonstrating that the gun name trend is far from over. Twins, anyone?)

Wilder (Has been climbing as an even "wilder" alternative to macho surnames like Hunter and Ryder.)


On to the 100 Club for girls!

America's REAL Favorite Boy's Name?

May 21st 2014

Noah is the #1 most popular name for American boys. That gives it a solid claim on the title of "the country's favorite boy's name."

If you combine sound-alike names with different spellings, though, you'll conclude that Jackson/Jaxon/Jaxson/Jaxen is actually #1. So Jackson, too, has a case for the "favorite name" label.

Yet there's another contender for the throne. I believe that the most broadly popular baby name in America may be:


Liam stakes it's claim via a different popularity loophole than Jackson. Liam is a nickname — traditionally, a Irish short form of William. As it happens, even in this era when most classic English kingly names are plummeting, William still ranks in the top 5. In fact, in 12 different states from Alaska to Virginia, Liam and William are both among the top 3 names for boys. I don't believe that's a coincidence.

Suppose that instead of combining spellings, we combined nicknames and formal names? I know it may sound like a stretch. Liam increasingly stands alone as a given name today, and plenty of parents of young Williams surely plan to call their sons Will, or Billy, or the full William. Anecdotally, though, I can tell you that a lot of young Williams are indeed named with an eye toward Liam. If that number amounts to half of the Williams born, the two-name combination of William and Liam will total more than all of the Jacksons put together.

Of course, if you took the next step and combined spellings and nicknames you could also argue for Jack or Jax as the top name. Liam, though, has an additional claim on the title of "America's favorite": it's popular in every corner of the country.

Either Liam or William is the #1 name in more than half of U.S. states, from Alaska to Virginia. Both names rank in the top 40 in every state. In contrast, no form of Jackson is a #1 or #2 name anywhere. Jackson's popularity ranges from #3 in Colorado to #60 in New Mexico; Jaxon from #5 in Oklahoma to #99 in New York.

That coast-to-coast unanimity, combined with the two versions of the name among the country's top 5, makes Irish Liam my choice for the 2013 All-American boy.