Fame or Shame
There are good reasons for giving names to hurricanes and tropical storms. It helps the weather-watchers avoid confusion in referring to them. But it was a bad idea to use the first names of people, because, if you happen to have that name – and especially if the event turns out to be a bad one – that name – your name – may be circulating for months, or even years, afterwards, with only negative connotations.
For example, I have always felt sorry for people who happened to be named Katrina, after a particularly devastating hurricane of that name struck the U.S. in August 2005, causing nearly 2,000 fatalities and $125 billion in damage. The effects were so profound, and lasted so long, that, to many people, the name Katrina must still bring horrible memories. Who could blame anyone with that name for wanting to change it – and I would not be surprised if many did.
And of course, that is only one example, with new ones occurring every year. My point is that this is a form of human suffering which is entirely avoidable. Instead of people’s names for hurricanes, it would be just as easy to use the names of animals or plants, of minerals, or just numbers, or many other non-human categories.
Now I hear someone saying: “But what if I like the idea? If they used my name, it might be the closest I will ever come to being famous. And the bigger and more catastrophic the hurricane, the more it would bolster my self-image.” Well, yes, I know there are sick people out there – but I’m assuming that most of my readers are sane and compassionate.
Usually there are better reasons for giving real people’s names to things. But still, the outcome may not always be as expected. A certain American pilot in World War II chose to honor his mother by naming his plane after her. Her name was Enola Gay Tibbets, and the plane, the “Enola Gay,” became part of history as the first aircraft to drop an atomic bomb.
In World War I, an enormous gun known as “Big Bertha,” which could fire a projectile 75 miles, was used by the Germans against Paris, with terribly destructive effect. It was named for Bertha Krupp, a matriarch of the huge Krupp arms manufacturing company, offshoots of whose empire are still in business to this day.
I am not sure whether Bertha Krupp or Mrs. Tibbets ever publicly acknowledged their dubious honors. However, there have been other eponymous instruments of war whose names have been proudly borne by those associated with them. One notable example was the Congreve rocket, named for its developer, the English artillery officer Sir William Congreve. One British man-of-war, the “Erebus,” carried a full load of these devices, which were fired from holes in the ship’s side. This particular species of weaponry, which was used in the 1814 bombardment of the American Fort McHenry, was immortalized by Francis Scott Key, when he wrote of “the rockets’ red glare – bombs bursting in air” – although the inventor of the device got no name credit in the song.
If you were asked about the names of Dr. Richard Gatling, John Moses Browning, and Hiram Stevens Maxim, you’d probably guess, correctly, that they all had something to do with machine guns. The American Dr. Gatling’s invention came first (1861), and ironically, he expressed the pious hope that it would save lives, by reducing the size of armies.
But of course, before all these, we had Samuel Colt, whose repeating revolver may be credited with winning or losing the West, depending on whose side you look at it from – the invading “Pioneers,” or the resident “Native Americans.”
Finally, a politician and diplomat, whose name today is probably known most widely in the name of a weapon, was a Russian, Vyacheslav Molotov. He himself, however, had nothing to do with the invention of the Molotov cocktail, which as you may know, consists of a bottle filled with some inflammable liquid, together with an igniting device. This product of the mid-20th century was found to be particularly effective against otherwise-almost-unstoppable tanks. It was first used in the Spanish Civil War of 1936-39. But Molotov’s name was attached to it mockingly by the Finns, during their “Winter War” with Russia in 1939-40. Molotov was then the Russian Foreign Minister, who had negotiated Stalin’s 1939 “non-aggression pact” with Hitler, which had made possible the Soviet invasion of Finland.