First came Cerberus, the three-headed dog from hell. Then followed Charon, the ferryman of the underworld. These are not just characters from Greek Mythology. They are the unofficial names for heatwaves that scorched Europe this year, coined by Italian weather website, iLMeteo.
Meanwhile, the extreme heat that hit the United States this summer had no name, although it had staggering consequences. According to the National Weather Service, it’s responsible for more fatalities than any other weather event in 2022.
Why name heatwaves?
Would giving it – or any heatwave – a name help avoid such dire consequences?
First, the obvious. Names are functional. If you’ve ever wandered around Dubai, a city-state famous for its lack of street names, you’ll quickly appreciate how much we depend on functional names to find our way around.
And without the kind of names that help us organize species, objects, and ideas, our understanding of the world and its countless things would diminish considerably.
But non-functional names serve a different purpose – they invite and express emotional engagement. This is probably why as children we bestow names on our favorite toys. Adults do the same, giving inanimate objects of value, like cars, boats, and lakeside cottages a name.
And, of course, there is the all-important task of naming a child.
Not surprisingly, biology drives this preference for intriguing names.
Names beyond common nouns
Our brain’s right hemisphere – the side that processes personal and emotional experiences – is the one that lights up when we consider names that go beyond common nouns. This is why rose names like Lullaby, Sunsprite, and Adrenaline are far more captivating names than white, yellow, or red rose.
Or, as put by the eponymous heroine in L.M. Montgomery’s novel, Anne of Green Gables, when caught naming a geranium,
…I like things to have handles on them even if they are only geraniums. It makes them more like people.
This is why finding an intriguing name for your business or product is crucial. It invites deeper levels of customer engagement.
Attention to the heatwave or its cause?
In the case of heatwaves, we do not need to be emotionally connected to the ‘heatwave’ itself, but rather to it as a manifestation of climate change. For this reason, there should be a careful execution when naming a heatwave.
A case in point: the media used the phrase “breaking news” more often since the twin tower attacks on September 11, 2001 . In fact, so much that it has arguably lost its sense of urgency.
Like anything that is overused, people stop paying attention. Heatwaves could suffer a similar fate if ordinary hot spells are given names. Heatwaves should only be named when they truly pose threats to human, animal, and plant life.
Too, it might make better sense to give a single name to all heatwaves and then distinguish its severity by number. A heatwave named Cerberus is worrisome; a heatwave named Cerberus 10 rings very loud alarm bells.
Naming the culprit
Whether it is named or not, extreme heat, especially when prolonged, kills. In Europe, nearly 62,000 people died from heat-related illnesses in the summer of 2022.
Moreover, over 600 people die every year in the United States because of extreme heat, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
If assigning a name to a heatwave can help call attention to one of its contributing factors – climate change – then by all means, let’s name them.