I don’t mean to make this a big thing. To me it’s pesky, a bugaboo. It shouldn’t matter, but it does. Maybe you have an aged father who says dungarees when he’s talking about jeans, and you correct him repeatedly, but he doesn’t wise up. Or, he calls cars automobiles and tells you again and again that his grandmother – God rest her soul – calls them machines, as in “Did you bring your machine today?”
This is the same thing. We have had two northeast gales in a week, and a third is on the way. All we hear from TV reporters or read in newspapers is nor’easter. Nor’easter coming, nor’easter caused flooding, battered New England awaits a third nor’easter.
I have tried to correct this nonsense before. In a column I wrote in 2009, I reported that I had been taken to task by none other than Everett Poole of Menemsha.
“You blew it again, Cabral. There is no such contraction as ‘Nor’easter.’ The correct contraction for northeast is ‘no’theast.’ Nor’ is used only when proceeding west as in ‘nor’west.’”
The author of this love note was Everett Poole, fish impresario, former Chilmark selectman, and current Chilmark town moderator, who in many immoderate moments over the years has jumped with both hip boots on something he’s found in my newspaper, the Martha’s Vineyard Times. and especially on something I had written. Every time I put finger to keyboard, I knew that Everett, pipe fixed between his teeth, long-billed swordfishing cap perched firmly on his gleaming head, would examine the result, ready to gaff me. I’m out of that business now, thank goodness.
But, on the occasion I’m remembering he had overplayed his hand. He had played right into mine. He had taken the bait. Finally, I was the one with the gaff.
Everett referred to a front page headline in the print edition of the newspaper, “Persistent nor’easter claims victim.” The headline accompanied a news story and front page photograph of a sailboat thrown up on the beach in Vineyard Haven. I often wrote headlines in those day, but I didn’t write that one. I had written “Persistent easterly claims victim,” but in the late stages of production someone substituted “nor’easter” for “easterly.”
When I saw “nor’easter” the next morning in print, there wasn’t anything to be done about it. When I saw it on the website, I had it changed to “no’theaster.” Everett is an ink on paper sort of fellow so he didn’t see the change on the website. He figured he’d drag me gasping over the rail, club me, and shove me in the fish hold. Instead, he had to face the fact – and this was hard for him – that we agreed on something.
Indeed, wrong as he was to abuse me the way he did, Everett was right, well, almost right. There is no such contraction as “nor’easter.” Or to be precise, there is one that’s often used, but it’s not authentic, not in any sense of the word. It’s pretentious, a silly affectation. It’s a pronunciation whose users pretend to an unearned saltiness. It’s falderal that’s caught on.
To force a change in this settled “nor’easter” nonsense the right minded will have to fight stiff headwinds and a roaring head tide. Even as I type this, Microsoft Word says okay to “nor’easter” and underlines “no’theaster” in red. As historically, linguistically, and aurally baseless as “nor’easter” is it’s common among dilettantish New Englanders, writers, journalists, and poets, and it’s accepted in dictionaries. “No’theaster” isn’t in the dictionary.
It’s a non-word that no genuine New England salt ever uses. It’s like Manhattan clam chowder, not chowder at all. It’s like asking for scallops (sounds like gallops) when you want scallops (sounds like polyps). It’s like sailing up-east. It’s like me saying whuddup to my sons. It’s like saying hookup when you mean, well, falling in love.
And, although for me, the opinion of one crusty old salt is all the etymological authority necessary to pronounce “nor’easter” out and “no’theaster” in, I can refer you to people who study words and agree. For instance, Mark Liberman, trustee professor of phonetics in the department of linguistics at the University of Pennsylvania, writing in the Language Log, on January 25, 2004 entitled his commentary “Nor’easter considered fake.”
Professor Liberman cites Jan Freeman, in the December 21, 2003 The Word column in the Boston Globe.
Professor Lieberman writes, “Jan Freeman cites an interesting alleged mispronunciation: ‘nor’easter’ … The Globe doesn’t (wittingly) use nor’easter for a disturbance blowing from the northeast, but in other newspapers, and especially among TV weather people, it’s common. How, asked reader Bill La Pointe, did this “bogus term” gain acceptance? It’s not, after all, a regional pronunciation, as many journalists outside New England now believe. ‘I grew up on Cape Cod when there still existed a pronounced local accent,’ wrote George Hand. ‘The word – spelled phonetically – was nawtheastah.’ Sailors disclaim it too. They may say sou’wester, but never nor’easter.”
Really, just take a moment to think about it. What’s the letter that Bostonians and New Englanders are notorious for forgetting in their speech. It’s “r.” They drop their “r’s.” They don’t drop the “th.” And, the “er” sounds like “ah.” So, it’s no’theastah, if you actually want to be authentic.
“The facts, however,” Professor Lieberman continues, “have not slowed the advance of nor’easter: Even in print, where it’s probably less common than in speech, it has practically routed northeaster in the past quarter-century or so. From 1975 to 1980, journalists used the nor’easter spelling only once in five mentions of such storms: in the past year, more than 80 percent of northeasters were spelled nor’easter. It’s no more authentic than “nucular” for nuclear or “bicep” for biceps, but it would take a mighty wind, at this point, to blow nor’easter back into oblivion.”
The professor went on to report that the OED (Oxford English Dictionary) cites examples of the use of the bastard contraction from 1837 onwards. But, he does not relinquish his position. He explains that the references are from British, Scottish, Canadian, and Carolinian sources and, naturally enough, they don’t carry water in New England.
“Subject to correction,” he concludes, “the picture that seems to be emerging is that nor’easter is a literary affectation.”
(This was adapted from a column I wrote and published in the Martha’s Vineyard Times in July of 2009. DAC)