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Hurricane, typhoon and all that jazz

Updated: 05 07 , 2013 19:39

Lest any of you think I exhibit your writings just to show you up, I promised last week to display a revised version of my own work to illustrate the benefit of rewriting.

In a way, books are not written, but re-written. Ernest Hemingway once said: "I rewrote the ending of 'Farewell to Arms' 39 times before I was satisfied."

I'm not suggesting that you re-write your thing 40 times to out-do Ernest. What I am suggesting is that we all of us should be as earnest as Hemingway in attitude at the very least, so that even if we fail, no one can fault us for not trying.

With that spirit, you'll actually succeed because, you see, the secret of success in writing (and in life) lies in just doing it.

Now, once again, 'Stormy Weather' from Lady Day (Read it along with the original version published on Wednesday, March 22 for comparison):

I listened to Billie Holiday while roaming the web in the small hours of Tuesday morning. She was crooning "Don't know why there's no sun up in the sky. Stormy weather, since my man and I ain't together, keeps rainin' all the time", when I came upon this story:

"Tropical Cyclone Hits Australia
"CAIRNS, Australia (AP) - The most powerful storm to hit Australia in decades laid waste to its northeastern coast on Monday (March 20), mowing down sugar and banana plantations and leaving possibly thousands of people homeless."

Well, it being autumn down under, Australia is prone to tropical storms this time of the year. That is hardly surprising. What struck me was the word "cyclone" in the headline. That word gave me trouble many years ago.

It was this way. A beat reporter had written that a certain hurricane hit Taiwan, Guangdong and Fujian provinces, causing injuries, damages and so forth. By hunch, I, working as a copy editor at the time, changed "hurricane" to "typhoon" which led to this question from my puzzled younger colleague, who thought the two terms meant the same thing and were therefore interchangeable.

"Don't both mean tropical storm, or cyclone?" he asked.

They do. Just that hurricanes don't ever visit this part of the world. Typhoons do.

However, at the time, I couldn't explain it so well, only saying meekly that the safe thing to do was to stick with "tropical cyclone", or better yet, "tropical storm", i.e. "a tropical storm with winds up to 120 kilometers an hour hit Taiwan Tuesday morning."

Truth be told, even today, having done more research on the subject, I am not sure that I have come to definite terms with the lot of them - cyclones, hurricanes, typhoons, and all that jazz - except that I am quite convinced that either weathermen throughout the world are collectively insane or that they don't mind driving the general public (laymen like you and me) that way.

One of my biggest findings is this: Hurricanes, tornadoes, typhoons are indeed more or less the same thing. They are all tropical storms (everyday language), or tropical cyclones (jargon), the worst stormy weather on earth.

Stormy weather is easy to grasp when meteorologists are ushered out of the room so that common sense can prevail and we are allowed to call a spade a spade.

The word "storm" itself comes from Old English "styrian", meaning to stir. Hence we understand a storm to be severe weather caused by an atmospheric tumult. It is Mother Nature's way of getting things back to normalcy, even though it behaves not unlike a pampered Chinese single-child, going on the rampage and throwing tantrums left, right and center.

At any rate, when a storm is marked by strong wind, we have a windstorm. When it also rains, we have a rainstorm. When it's coupled with thunder and lightning, we have a thunderstorm. When hailstones are involved, folks in the city are delighted to duck under the roof and to observe a hailstorm. In winter, when the rain is replaced with ice, we have a snowstorm.

When dust is whipped by the wind, as is normal in Beijing in all four seasons, we have a dust storm or a sandstorm when the situation becomes extreme. Beijingers accuse, often unfairly, the northern lands from Inner Mongolia and beyond of being responsible for the loss of visibility in their beloved city. In my view, littering local construction sites are the main culprit.

So far so good. But, when it comes to tropical storms (the most tempestuous of all storms) and when we let meteorologists back into the picture, well, the picture begins to blur immediately.

In the eye of the pro, all tropical storms are cyclones (caused by rotations of a volume of air of low atmospheric pressure in a certain area). The word "cyclone" is derived from the Greek word "kyklon" (circle).

Fair enough.

However, when a tropical cyclone forms in the Western Hemisphere, it is by tradition called a hurricane (from Spanish "huracan" meaning the Storm God). When formed in the Western Pacific, it is called a typhoon (from the Chinese term Tai Feng - ?? - The character "?" possibly means wind from Taiwan, ??, as typhoons are indeed blown in from the direction of Taiwan, as observed from the standpoint of people on the mainland). In the Indian Ocean and the South Pacific, including Australia, it is called a tropical cyclone.

Since all tropical storms are graded by their sustained speed (a hurricane referring, for example, to winds of 119 kilometers per hour or higher), you and I wonder why weathermen won't make their lives (and ours) easy by addressing them thus. That way, reporters can readily say, for example, a tropical storm with winds up to 100 kilometers per hour is going to hit the southern coast later today.

However, this is decidedly not what weathermen of the world intend to do, not for the time being at least. You should look at the way they name all their lovely hurricanes and typhoons to fully appreciate the great lengths they go to in order to impress people of all other professions - only to make a fine mess of it, if you don't mind.

According to WMO (World Meteorological Organization, the international governing body of global storms - I like this description, if you don't mind), in the Atlantic and Eastern North Pacific regions, feminine and masculine names are assigned alternately in alphabetic order during a given season. The "gender" (if you don't mind) of the season's first storm also alternates year to year: the first storm of an odd-numbered year gets a feminine name, while the first storm of an even-numbered year gets a masculine name. Six lists of names are prepared in advance, and each list is used once every six years.

All the names are Greek to us too - Alu, Buri, Dodo, Emau, Fere, Hibu, Ila, Kama, Lobu, etc.

And of course, don't forget Katrina, which wrecked havoc to New Orleans (the Jazz town, come to think of it) in 2005.

Yes, please remember Katrina. She could be "retired".

Yes, as though things are not complicated enough, they "retire" names too (so that future practitioners will HAVE TO come up with even stranger names if that were possible).

I'm not making any of this up. According to WMO's naming schemes, names of storms may be retired by request of affected countries if they have caused extensive damage. The affected countries then decide on a replacement name of the same gender (if you don't mind) and if possible, the same ethnicity (if you don't mind) as the name being retired.

Ah well, my point is, for more mazy rules and information, send no questions to me.

Send them instead to the World Meteorological Organization directly. I'm sure their men all have the time, while working in between cyclones, to explain everything to you.

Me? I'm going back to Billie. Having weathered the storm (if you don't mind), I find the voice of the melancholy Lady Day even more soothing.

In fact, just "Fine and Mellow".

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