Q&A: Hurricane, typhoon, or cyclone?

Each week here at the Australian Writers’ Centre, we dissect and discuss, contort and retort, ask and gasp at the English language and all its rules, regulations and ridiculousness. It’s a celebration of language, masquerading as a passive-aggressive whinge about words and weirdness. This week we have our eye on the storm.

Q: Hi AWC, what’s the difference between a typhoon, a hurricane and even a cyclone? Is it to do with wind speed?

A: It’s actually to do with the number of corrugated iron sheets that get blown off roofs.

Q: Hey, don’t you mean “rooves”, not “roofs”?

A: No, it’s “roofs”. “Rooves” is a now outdated plural and while Macquarie Dictionary still accepts that pronunciation, it doesn’t acknowledge the spelling.

Q: Okay, so explain how this corrugated iron scale works then.

A: Oh that? No, we were just joking. They all mean exactly the same thing.

Q: What? It has nothing to do with corrugated iron?

A: Nothing at all.

Q: I hate you.

A: No you don’t. All of these words refer to severe tropical cyclones – but which name you choose depends on where they form.

Q: Oh, so Asia versus America?

A: Even more specific than that. For example, a “typhoon” is a tropical cyclone that forms north of the equator between 100 and 180 degrees East – in the Northwestern Pacific.

Q: So you actually got more Pacific, not specific.

A: You’re hilarious.

Q: Thank you.

A: Anyway, it’s all about the geography. A similar storm that forms in the Northeastern Pacific or in the Atlantic – basically either side of North America – is known as a “hurricane”. And finally, any storm forming down this way in the South Pacific or Indian Ocean is a “cyclone” or “tropical cyclone”.

Q: So when does it graduate from just being a really big storm to getting one of these names?

A: They do a fairly simple test. If more than three out of five weather presenters are unable to stay standing on a street corner for their entire live cross, then it is upgraded.

Q: Really?

A: No.

Q: Argh.

A: Essentially, it’s all about wind speed – measured on the Beaufort Scale. Once the sustained winds hit a certain speed – upwards of 120kph or “12” on the scale – they qualify.

Q: Okay. And where did the names “typhoon” and “hurricane” come from?

A: “Typhoon” is linked to Greek “Typhon” – a mythological monster associated with storms. Meanwhile, “hurricane” comes from the Spanish word “Juracán” – the Caribbean storm god.

Q: Actually, speaking of names, who chooses the names?

A: Good question. Before the 20th century, these weather events were just named ad hoc by the various storm centres – after places, holidays or objects. It was an Australian named Clement Wragge who proposed the idea of girl and boy names and since the 1940s, it has been replicated around the globe – albeit each area having their own set of names they cycle through.

Q: How do they cycle through them?

A: Most are an A-Z of names for each calendar year, on a six-year rotation. The first storm of the season begins with A, the next with B and so on until the season is over. Male and female names are alternated.

Q: So the next hurricane after Florence will be?

A: Gordon. And then Helene, Isaac, Joyce, Kirk and so on. Next year’s names are different and start from A again. And if the storm is particularly devastating – e.g. Katrina – that name is retired.

Q: What happens if they have more storms than letters in the alphabet?

A: Haha, yeah. It doesn’t happen often. In America, they use the names of the Greek alphabet (Alpha, Beta…) when they need extra names – last needed in 2005. In Australia, we have a backup list each year.

Q: Wow, I never knew there was such a procedure. I’ll pay more attention to the names next time. Hey, what did one hurricane say to the other hurricane?

A: What?

Q: I’ve got my eye on you.

A: Groan…

If you have a grammar gripe or punctuation puzzle that you’d like our Q&A to explore, email it to us today!

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