In the United States before the 1950s, hurricanes were identified by latitude and longitude, a system that became confusing when there was more than one tropical cyclone brewing at a time. In the early ’50s the United States decided to name storms using the Army/Navy phonetic alphabet, devised for World War II military communications: Able, Baker, Charlie, etc. So in 1952 the news reported on Hurricane Dog, Hurricane Easy and Hurricane Fox. (If the tropical storm season had been busier, coast dwellers might have been threatened by Hurricanes How, Item, Love, Sugar, Uncle, X-ray and Zebra.)
Human beings have a long history of personifying nature (as in Thor, the Norse god of thunder), so using human names for big storms makes sense. Hurricanes that hit the West Indies in the 19th and early 20th centuries were named after saints. And in the 1940s weather forecasters, like World War II fliers naming their fighter planes, often gave hurricanes women’s names.
In 1953 the weather service officially switched to women’s names, and in the 1970s men’s names were added to the mix. Which is why today we can be rained on by a hurricane named Richard.
To make naming easy, there are six years of alphabetized lists, which then repeat. In 2008 the first Atlantic hurricane will be named Arthur, the next Bertha. (Names beginning with Q, U, X, Y, and Z are out, since there aren’t enough of them.