‘Rain later. Good, occasionally poor’: what does the shipping forecast mean?
Listeners to BBC Radio 4 have a strange affection for its shipping forecast. Although it is basically just a weather forecast, the hypnotic sounds of its intoning, occurring at the same extremely precise four times every day, recalls the chanting of the monastic hours. Its lyrical qualities have been the inspiration of poets such as Seamus Heaney and Carol Ann Duffy. In Duffy’s poem ‘Prayer’, describing the ways in which we find prayers in everyday sounds, the words of the shipping forecast function as a reassuring invocation with which the poem ends: ‘Darkness outside. Inside, the radio’s prayer – Rockall. Malin. Dogger. Finisterre’.
But what does it mean?
But, while the shipping forecast may be a feast for the ears, understanding it can be something of a workout for the brain. To give you an example, the forecast issued at 05.20 on the morning on which I wrote this post began as follows: ‘Low Skagarack 1008 expected Baltic 1003 by midnight tonight. Lows Plymouth and Rockall, both 1011, losing their identities’. This was followed by references to bizarre sounding places –German Bight? Dogger? – and a series of gnomic observations of the kind: ‘snow showers good, occasionally poor’. And all of this was read in a dead-pan and matter-of-fact way as if what was being said made perfect sense. What the criteria are by which a snow storm may be judged good or poor was never explained, nor was it clear why someone bobbing about in the North Sea at 5 am would be concerned about its quality. And why should Plymouth and Rockall be facing an existential crisis?
The liturgical quality of the forecast derives in part from its very fixed and repetitive structure. It begins with gale warnings and then moves on to a general forecast, or synopsis (Greek sun ‘together’ + opsis ‘seeing’) which details the position, pressure, and track of pressure areas. The forecast for each area of the seas surrounding the British Isles is then read out, working clockwise. The forecast reports wind direction and strength (on the Beaufort scale – a standard measure of wind speed devised by Francis Beaufort, an Irish naval officer, in 1805); predicted changes in wind direction are described as veering or backing, depending on whether they are shifting clockwise or anti-clockwise. This is followed by precipitation (rain to the rest of us – from Latin praecipitare ‘to throw down’), and visibility – ranked as good, moderate, or poor. Although these terms may sound unhelpfully vague, they actually represent specific measurements in nautical miles. Since the forecast adopts the same structure every day, it doesn’t need to tell its listeners what is being described; hence strange formulations like ‘snow showers good, occasionally poor’, which actually means: ‘snow showers, visibility good, occasionally poor’. Given the British propensity to whinge about the weather, it seems appropriate that there should be no category higher than good.
Where are we?
And what of the bizarre place names? A number of the locations mentioned in the forecast are entirely self-explanatory. These include the names of coastal towns such as Dover and Plymouth, and of major rivers of the British Isles, such as the Forth, Tyne, Humber, Thames, and Shannon – the longest river in Ireland, named after a Celtic goddess called Sionna.
Others turn out to be equally straightforward. The Forties, for example, is simply an area of the North Sea that is forty fathoms deep. A fathom is officially 6 feet (or 1.8 metres); it originates in an Old English word which referred to an embrace using outstretched arms. It subsequently developed the sense of a unit of measurement based on the span of the outstretched arms, which was later standardized to 6 feet. We can still see traces of the original meaning in the use of fathom or fathom out – to entirely understand (or grasp – reflecting a similar metaphorical development) a complex problem.
Other areas are called after nearby islands, whose names originate in the Old Norse tongue – the ancestor of the modern Scandinavian languages – spoken by the Vikings who gave the islands (or Old Norse eyjar) their names. So the Faroes are literally the ‘sheep islands’, Lundy is ‘puffin island’, Fair Isle was originally Old Norse Friðarey ‘peaceful island’, and Fastnet is the ‘sharp-tooth island’. Fastnet, the most southerly point of Ireland, also goes by the evocative Irish name Carraig Aonair, meaning ‘lonely rock’. It’s easy to see why the Shipping Forecast announcers stick to Fastnet. North and South Utsira refer to the tiny Norwegian island community of Utsira (with a population of around 200). The name derives from the river Sira, which is thought to mean ‘strong stream’; the ut prefix just means ‘offshore’.
Dogger, German Bight, and FitzRoy
Moving to the more southerly locations we encounter Dogger, a large sandbank about 60 miles from the eastern coast of England. It takes its name from an old Dutch word for a boat used to fish from the plentiful stocks of cod found in that area. To the east of Dogger lies German Bight, an area which encompasses the Frisian and Danish Islands. A bight is a geographical term that describes a curve or recess in a coastline. It derives from the Old English word byht, used to refer to a bend or angle, ultimately related to the verb bow – to bend the head or body.
The only location to be named after an individual is FitzRoy – an area lying north–west of Spain. Vice-Admiral Robert FitzRoy (1805-1865) was an English naval officer and scientist; in the 1830s he captained the HMS Beagle upon which Charles Darwin sailed. FitzRoy was himself a keen student of meteorology (the study of atmospheric processes, from Greek meteoron ‘of the atmosphere’); he is credited with coining the term forecasting for the science of weather prediction and founded the English Met (formerly Meteorological) Office in 1854, to issue accurate weather warnings to mariners. The name FitzRoy (literally ‘Son of the King’) was introduced in 2002; prior to that this area was known as Finisterre (from French ‘end of the world’). The change was intended to avoid confusion with a different area of the same name. While this was no doubt good news for sailors who were no longer left wondering which Finisterre was being referred to, it must have been less welcome to Carol Ann Duffy since it means that the final lines of her poem no longer scan or rhyme: ‘Darkness outside. Inside, the radio’s prayer – Rockall. Malin. Dogger. FitzRoy’.