History is a powerful antiseptic. It tells the story, but distances the mind from the horrors of war and pestilence. Sanitising the psyche is mankind’s ancient way of playing the ostrich when disaster stares it in the face. Sigmund Freud saw dissociation as “a means through which the ego defends itself against unacceptable unconscious thoughts—an expression of unconscious conflict”.
Nicknames are the calm petrels of disaster, currently epitomised by cyclones. Phailin means sapphire in Thai, a sparkling agnomen chosen from a list of names supplied by various countries. After Phailin, it will be the turn of Helen, as she prepares to churn the waters of the Bay of Bengal—promising not the launch of a thousand ships but their sinking, perhaps. Phailin’s stormy predecessor was the tropical cyclone Mahasen—named after a famed Sri Lankan kin in 2013, cutting a wide swathe of destruction from Indonesia to Sri Lanka. Mahasen’s predecessor was Nilam, which in October 2012 caused extensive damage. Orissa’s subconscious is still haunted by the violent aftermath of the Paradeep cyclone in 1999 that killed about 10,000, destroyed 300,000 houses and left behind around 2,000 orphans.
So what’s in a name? Sometimes, a one-word, four-letter answer—Fear.
Hence the rule in naming cyclones is that the appellations suggested by the public should not have connotations of death or destruction. The names are never repeated for successive cyclones, either.
Cyclones aren’t the only nemeses that are gussied up with cosmetically deceptive nom de plumes. On August 9, 1945, American aircraft dropped two atomic bombs over Nagasaki and Hiroshima. Ninety thousand to 166,000 people were vapourised or died horrible, lingering deaths in Hiroshima and 60,000 to 80,000 in Nagasaki. The two bombs bore deceptively endearing names that would’ve made Walt Disney proud—Little Boy and Fat Man. No darker irony had ever sterilised such a massacre in order to numb human conscience. The American nuclear depth charge, Mark 90, was affectionately named Betty, like in Archie Comics.
Death and pain bring out a desperate sense of humour in man. In World War II, the Germans named Allied Sherman tanks ‘Tommy Cookers’ because they would burst into fire when hit by anti-tank ordnance. Allies named German hand grenades that were shaped like cans with wooden sticks at the end ‘Potato Mashers.’ The Brits called the German V1 Rocket the ‘Buzz Bomb’ because of the distinctive noise it made before hitting the ground. The Americans’ name for the German railgun Leopold was ‘Anzio Annie’. Aircraft got the most sobriquets in times of conflict: the alias of World War II British bomber Handley Page Hampden was the ‘Flying Suitcase’; the Mitsubishi Betty’s nom de guerre was the ‘Flying Cigar’ because of its shape and propensity to burst into flames. ‘Frustrated Palm Tree’ was the handle given to the Sikorsky R-4 Hoverfly helicopter. The 66m Anti Tank grenade launcher, which saw action in Vietnam, was fondly called the ‘Peashooter’.
In the 1940s, under Hitler, six million Jews were annihilated in the Holocaust; Stalin was responsible for the murders of 13.5 million Russians. In both regimes, the much-feared midnight knock was a preface to subsequent transportation to Auschwitz or Lubyanka in claustrophobic, black vans grimly nicknamed Black Marias. The Middle Ages, too, had charmingly bizarre though sexist epithets for machines of pain: the Iron Maiden, immortalised by Edgar Allan Poe was a popular torture machine, whose metallic exterior in the shape of a woman closed on hinges to impale the victim on the spikes inside. The Scottish Maiden crushed its victims to death. The guillotine, which claimed the heads of 40,000 French aristocrats, was called the Hungry Lady and sometimes ‘The National Razor’ in christenings of blood.
Since the beginning of man, billions have died in calamities. To reconcile a world that enjoys Ustad Ali Akbar Khan with genocide by the Taliban, sanitising is used to preserve sanity of the collective mind.