From ‘Frankenstorm’ to ‘Grease’: The foul-weather lexicon

Correction: The article about the lexicon of Hurricane Sandy quoted a professor as saying that 50-knot winds are “actually 90 miles per hour.” The professor misspoke. Fifty knots, or nautical miles per hour, is about 57.5 mph. This version has been updated.

October 29, 2012

In the hours before “Superstorm Sandy” whipped into our lives, we were busy “hunkering down,” and ready to “batten down the hatches” for the “Frankenstorm.”

Storm cliches and neologisms are a way of trying to assert a sense of control, when in fact we are vulnerable to the large and indifferent forces of nature.

For those trying to make light of the storm, there’s the possibility of “Frankenstorm babies,” with so many couples stuck indoors; or “storm diets,” for those who replaced their wimpy-weather salads with hearty, Charles “Pa” Ingalls-style meals fixed at home.

But the storm also evokes images from the past.

Here’s what some experts say about the foul-weather lexicon.

Batten down the hatches:

Bob Dylan recently used the expression in his song “Tempest,” which tells the story of the Titanic’s plunge.

“They battened down the hatches

But the hatches wouldn’t hold.”

The phrase is a nautical term, according to Phrasefinder, an online United Kingdom-based company. The Web site says Adm. W.H. Smyth’s 1867 “Sailor’s Word-Book, “ refers to “narrow laths [wooden boards] serving by the help of nailing to confine the edges of the tarpaulins, and keep them close down to the sides of the hatchways in bad weather.”

The first citation of the phrase “batten down the hatches” is from the 1883 Chambers Journal:

“Batten down the hatches — quick, men.”

Ponding:

“HA. HA. It’s a very funny word to be used, as a verb or at all! I’m actually trying to figure out who coined this term,” Raghu Murtugudde, professor of atmospheric and oceanic science at the University of Maryland, said over the phone Monday. “I suspect this came out of water resource managers trying to describe unwanted water that piles up. You have heard of it today on the news from New Jersey as in, ‘It’s not flooding, but there’s some ponding going on.’ It’s not a really scientific thing.”

Hurricane Sandy: The “Grease” Facebook graphic

A graphic that was posted on Facebook and became popular on Twitter shows an innocent, ponytailed Sandy — based on Olivia Newton-John’s character in the 1978 musical “Grease” — progressing from a nice girl to a wild temptress, with a cigarette hanging out of her mouth.

“It’s not a word, but it provides an example of how social media can play with the name and inject amusement into the drama,” said Alison Mackey, head of applied linguistics at Georgetown University.

Hunkering down:

The expression was first used to explain how people would stay in their cabins during blizzards and other bad weather, “Little House on the Prarie”-style, with Ma making the last of the biscuits while the family played jacks.

“There is a nostalgia for what used to be when there was a big storm,” said Mackey. “So we look backwards to a past when we had fewer defenses against it.”

Frankenstorm:

All weekend, our city was filled with Halloween revelers strolling around town in, say, Spider-Man costumes, spacesuits and monster makeup, giving off a surreal sense of the coming onslaught.

Our blogger Erik Wemple explains the use of Frankenstorm, which CNN says belittles a potentially deadly storm.

But Murtugudde said it perfectly captures the mood of America. “It’s this Halloween vibe, plus it’s a full moon, high tide and a storm surge that is coming from behind — it is scary!”

European model:

Few people are sure exactly what this means, but those who use it sure sound as if they’re in the know. It’s actually shorthand for the European Centre for Medium-Range Weather Forecast (ECMWF), which offers Americans a sort of second opinion on weather patterns. It has one of the largest supercomputers in the world and is based in Reading, England.

“We want to use the terms that people who know what they are talking about use,” said Naomi Baron, a professor of linguistics at American University. “ We learned as kids how to pronounce the word Sputnik, because we wanted to be able to talk about it.”

Inclement:

The word was first used in the 1660s and comes from the Latin word that means “harsh or unmerciful,” according to the Online Etymology dictionary.

“We use it because it’s a special word; it’s not part of common parlance. It also won’t frighten little children, as in, ‘Oh, Jane, let’s all go to the basement now, there’s inclement weather,’ versus using ‘Frankenstorm,’ which sounds spooky, ” Baron said.

Knots:

This is a technical term that refers to “one nautical mile per hour,” Murtugudde said.

Murtugudde warns that weather experts have to be careful when they use these terms because people don’t know what they mean.

“What we don’t realize is that weather experts are also trying to issue forecasts for sailors,” he said. “Then they have to switch to speaking to land people and say the normal stuff, like ‘Tie down your trash cans.’ ”

Not as much fun, he added wryly.

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