Amid all the wild words and phrases that weather reporters bandy about during the winter — polar vortex, bombogenesis — there’s one panic-inducing term that dates back hundreds of years, predating modern-day snowmageddons: nor’easter.
The word itself brings to mind salty old New England sea captains surveying an ominous-looking sky from their ship decks. In reality, however, the term “nor’easter” has rather dubious origins, and meteorologists, linguists and sailors alike have all questioned their veracity. Some linguistic purists say it’s likely a made-up word, of non-New England origin. Some folks have even gone so far as to undertake a personal crusade against its usage.
First off, a definition. A nor’easter is a kind of storm that only happens in the North Atlantic, most often occurring between September and April. It happens when warm water from the Gulf Stream current moves north and cold air from Canada moves south. When the warm and the cold meet — usually somewhere in the waters between Georgia and New Jersey — a massive low pressure area forms.
The combined forces of the Jet Stream and the Coriolis effect then form a big storm that can drop sheets of rain or buckets of snow depending on the time of year. It’s called a “nor’easter” because the winds typically come from the northeast. In more recent decades, some less scrupulous weather reporters have referred to any big, wet winter storm as a nor’easter — not just arguably linguistically wrong, but undeniably wrong scientifically as well.
The earliest reported mention of the term “nor’easter” dates back to 1594, in an English book about seafaring that makes mention of the pronunciations for the 32 points of the compass — as in, nor’-nor’east, west-nor’west, and so on. It seems that that particular pronunciation, with its emphasis on the “r,” has its roots in the British or Irish English spoken by seafarers, both of which tend to pronounce that first “r”.
Here in New England, however, we tend not to pronounce any of our r’s. We pahk our cah, we fish for lobstah, and we are proud Mainahs. So why is the term nor’easter considered a part of the New England lexicon, when it flies in the face of how we traditionally pronounce things?
Emily Burnham is a Maine native and proud Bangorian, covering business, the arts, restaurants and the culture and history of the Bangor region.
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