Fanciful storm appellations

Yesterday, I sent this message to the newsroom staff: We will not be using the word “Frankenstorm” in coverage of Hurricane Sandy, because the term trivializes a serious and potentially deadly event. It’s acceptable in direct quotes, but even there we shouldn’t overdo it.

In doing so, we were following the lead of Phil Blanchard at Testy Copy Editors, who had posted that advice on Facebook, and CNN, which had adopted the same policy. The advisory to the staff was not a flat ban, as you see from the mention of quotes, and Frankenstorm is a word that people are using, and using as an SEO term to find information. We just don't want to belabor it.*

I think that that was the right editorial decision, but I also understand the impulse to come up with these ludicrous nicknames. In 2010 we had snowmageddon, and that was a relatively harmless storm. Knowing we were going to be stranded in the house (our street generally being cleared by God, not the city), we stored up food and drink and waited out the blizzard. It was as if we were in John Greenleaf Whitter's "Snow-bound."

But Hurricane Sandy, whether hurricane, tropical storm, or nor'easter, promises to be considerably less cosy on arrival: trees coming down, power failing, fatalities. Instead of sitting by the window and sipping bourbon as the snow comes down, I expect to be bailing out the sump for hours to keep the basement from flooding.

It is the very threatening nature of the storm that moves people to come up with nicknames, to stave off fear and apprehension by naming the source of the fear and trying to trivialize it. If we call the devil Old Scratch rather than Satan, we have domesticated him a little. Walt Disney's Donald Duck in "Der Fuehrer's Face" and Mel Brooks in The Producers turn laughter against Nazism.

If you are going to tune in to local meteorologists amping up the anxiety, or check the Weather Channel every hour for updates on the Sinister Cone, it may ease the panic a little by giving the storm a silly name. Good luck with that.


* It's one of the SEO terms for this post, too. You think people are going to go looking for fanciful storm appellations? Moreover, you'll see that the term used on the website because it's in such common use that it can't be avoided completely. 

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