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?
The answer is that journalists and other writers in the 19th and early 20th century likely thought that nor’easter — like other literary affectations such as o’er, e’en and ne’er — was a much more poetic way to describe a big storm. Writing it that way makes it sound like Captain Ahab himself was warning all ye landlubbers to take cover.
Mark Liberman, a New England native and a linguist at the University of Pennsylvania, wrote on his language blog back in 2004 that he believes nor’easter is an invention of writers of the 19th century. And in the early 2000s, Edgar Comee, a Brunswick resident and former editorial page editor for the Portland Press Herald, made waves with his committed anti-nor’easter stance, even going so far as to hand out a postcard to journalists, business owners and anyone else who used the phrase, most of which the New Yorker transcribed in a 2005 article.
“Now hear this!” the card began. “The use of nor’easter to describe a northeast storm is a pretentious and altogether lamentable affectation, the odious, even loathsome, practice of landlubbers who would be seen as salty as the sea itself.”
It continues, “You will of course accept my view in this matter in good part and will never again use nor’easter, at least in public, and thus oblige. Your most humble petitioner, Edgar Comee, Chairman, Ad Hoc Committee for Stamping Out Nor’easter.”
Comee, who died later that year, would have undoubtedly been appalled not just by the continued use of nor’easter, but also the more new-fangled habit of naming winter storms, started by commercial weather services in the past decade. And not the relatively common names given to hurricanes by the World Meteorological Organization, but fantastical or historical names, such as Caesar, Gandolf and Nemo.
To its credit, the Associated Press Stylebook forbids the use of such winter storm names, unless they come from the National Weather Service or another government agency. Thankfully, the weather service has no plans to get into the winter-storm naming business — it’s leaving that to commercial enterprises such as the Weather Channel.
The AP Stylebook and the National Weather Service both, however, approve of the term nor’easter, so you may, in fact, see it in the pages of the Bangor Daily News now and again. And to be fair, the word, inaccurate though it may be, has so thoroughly inserted itself into the lexicon that it seems unlikely it’ll be going anywhere anytime soon.
So when you see frantic TV weather broadcasters screaming in the middle of a blizzard, just know that they — like their predecessors in the 19th century — are embellishing the details to make the story a little wilder. Even if the weather is plenty wild enough.