WASHINGTON (AP) _ This year's big storm is Hurricane Hugo. Last year, Gilbert was a killer, and over the years Camille and Hazel, Donna and Agnes have been the culprits - a naming system intended to give each storm a clear identity for the public.

The designations can irritate or please human owners of the names, depending on the violence of the storm involved.

But the practice at least avoids confusion in issuing warnings about particular storms, especially when more than one is under way - such as the current situiation with both Hurricane Hugo and Tropical Storm Iris active.

Naming these storms is a practice of long-standing, yet the current system has been common only since World War II, and it was modified about a decade ago to include male names.

Using saints names, taken from the day a storm struck, was a common practice for several hundred years, particularly in regions that have a strong Spanish influence.

A storm which struck Puerto Rico on July 26, 1825, for example, became known as the Santa Ana storm.

For meteorologists, a simple system of latitude and longitude coordinates is used to locate storms. But that can be confusing to the public, especially when there are two or even three storms at the same time.

Clement Wragge, an Australian meteorlogist active way back around the turn of the century, may be have helped initiate the current system.

''Inclement'' Wragge was a well-known lecturer on the weather who began naming storms to help explain them to the public. He chose the names of females for tropical storms, the type we call hurricanes, and he used male names for other types of storms.

Often the male names were those of politicians that Wragge did not care for, and one of his earliest weather maps includes a storm called ''Hackenbush,'' reports Ivan Ray Tannehill in his book, ''The Hurricane Hunters.''

During World War II military meteorologists found themselves busy tracking hurricanes, and to avoid confusion named them using the phonetic alphabet - Able, Baker, Charlie and so on.

Other armed forces weathermen began applying nicknames to particular storms of all types they were tracking, explained the late Frank H. Forrester, who was a Marine Corps weatherman in that era.

Nicknames such as ''Big Jack'' or ''Dopey'' were common, but, ''It was strictly informal, believe me,'' said Forrester.

The use of women's names for hurricanes in recent years may stem from the book ''Storm,'' by George R. Stewart. Published in 1941, it tells of a weatherman who names storms after women.

As public interest in hurricanes increased in the early 1950s, officials of the Air Force, Navy and Weather Bureau met to try and develop a new naming system. This led to a system of female names starting in 1953.

The process of selecting the names was eventually shifted to the World Meteorological Organization in Geneva, Switzerland, and starting in 1978 male names were added, alternating with females.

The World Meteorological Organization has lists of names that rotate over periods of four or five years to keep them from repeating too often. In addition, names of exceptionally damaging storms are retired to prevent historical confusion.

Last year, for example, both Gilbert and Joan were retired. When their turn comes around again they will be replaced by Gordon and Joyce.