Irish Language Blog

Ainmneacha Ceilteacha ar Hairicíní (Fiona en route) Posted by on Aug 31, 2010 in Uncategorized

As a dedicated ainmeolaí, I recently found myself wondering why I couldn’t think of any hurricanes that had Celtic names, even in their anglicized forms.  So I decided to look into it. 

Reviewing the situation, I see that traditionally hurricanes were named after the saint’s day on which they occurred (which could reopen the door for Celtic-named hurricanes, but again, none come to mind.  Hurricane Fiacre?  Hurricane Phelimy?).  In the 19th century, an Australian meitéareolaí began giving ainmneacha ban to tropical storms and this laofacht inscne was continued when the U.S. also began naming hurricanes in 1953.  The gender bias continued till 1979 in the U.S. when cothromas deiseanna became the practice regarding ainmniú hairicíní

There are six lists of 23 hurricane names that are recycled (every six years) and the only opportunities for new names to be added occur when a name is retired, due to its namesake having been particularly deadly, like Frances or Katrina.  Apparently the names are supposed to be English, Spanish or French, designated as the “main” languages in areas of the Atlantic where hurricanes arise.  So I don’t think we’ll ever see a hurricane named “Cúchoigrí” (Peregrine), Giolla Easpaig (Archibald), or Bláthnait (Florence), although the English versions of those names would be fair game. 

But what about any names that are distinctively, or at least thematically, Celtic, albeit in English spelling?  So, checking the lists (easily available) online, I found that the following had been used: Erin (starting in 2001), Gordon (2000, 2006), Kyle (2002 and 2008), and Oscar (2000, 2006).  The last may sound more Scandinavian than Celtic, at first glance, but it is a very very old Irish name, Oscar having been the grandson of the legendary Fionn Mac Cumhaill.  There is an Old Norse derivation for this name (asgeirr, god-spear) but it is also believed that the name became popular in Scandinavia in honor of Joseph François Oscar Bernadotte (1799-1859), Napoleon’s godson and later King Oscar I of Sweden.  Napoleon was known to have been a fan of James Macpherson’s Ossian saga, which includes Oscar, as well as Ossian (Oisín) and Fingal (Fionn himself) and Napoleon is believed to have picked the name Oscar in tribute to the epic. 

Oscar is spelled the same in Irish and in English, so certainly gives a Celtic slant to the hurricane onamasticon.

But even more timely and equally straightforward in its spelling is Hurricane Fiona, which approaches America’s Atlantic coast as I write, although apparently it’s been demoted to a stoirm thrópaiceach.   “Fiona” is a name whose popularity has skyrocketed in recent years.  It’s short, easy to spell, equally applicable to Ireland and Scotland, and evokes Fionn Mac Cumhaill, often seen as a feminine version of his name.  But curiously, the name was invented in the 19th century by Scottish writer William Sharp.  If it seems surprising that it’s such a recent invention, it’s worth remembering that Pamela, Vanessa and Wendy, among others, are also relatively recent literary coinages, whose origins are easily traceable. 

One slight change would have to occur to properly spell this name in Irish today – the “o” is long, giving us “Fióna.” 

There is also an older Irish name, Fíne, or Fíona (note the different placement of the síneadh fada), borne by an early abbess of Kildare.  Can’t say I’ve ever met anyone whose name was “Fíona” as opposed to “Fióna,” but having written this, I’ll be on the lookout for the distinction. 

This year’s Hurricane Fiona replaced Hurricane Frances (2004), which qualified as deadly enough to be retired.  While it’s sad to think of the tragedies that occur before a new name slot opens up in the hurricane lists, it is also interesting to ponder whether another Celtic-based name will be selected before long, and if so, which one.  It’s unlikely that the full-fledged Irish spelling (with long marks, etc.) would be used, but it would be nice to see a little more Celtic representation in a listing that includes both the typically American “Teddy” and “Sally” and names ranging from Gaston and Pablo to Olga and Odette, representing the wider language pool involved.  .

Nótaí: ainmeolaí, onomatologist; ban [bahn], of women (possessive plural form); cothromas, equality; deiseanna, opportunities; laofacht, bias

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