January 25, 2004

Nor'easter considered fake

In the Dec. 21, 2003 The Word column in the Boston Globe, Jan Freeman cites an interesting alleged mispronunciation: "nor'easter" (scroll down past the Sir and Lady stuff).

The snow kept coming, and so did the mail, during the region's recent storms: The Globe doesn't (wittingly) use nor'easter for a disturbance blowing from the northeast, but in other newspapers, and especially among TV weatherpeople, 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.

The facts, however, 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.

In rural eastern Connecticut, where I grew up, locals also pronounced northeaster without any tendency to drop the final consonant of north. However, the OED cites a bunch of examples from 1837 onwards:

1837 B. D. WALSH tr. Aristophanes Knights I. iii in Comedies I. 175 Slack your sheet! A strong nor'-easter's groaning. 1891 A. AUSTIN Lyrical Poems 9 Nobody..could ever dream of holding up as the model of a delicious climate that alternation of swirling, dusty nor'-easters and boisterous, drenching sou'-westers which we in England recognise as spring. 1931 A. J. CRONIN Hatter's Castle II. ix. 368 Did you see that shot of mine, cocky?.. It was a regular nor'easter, a pickled ripsnorter. 1972 F. MOWAT Whale for Killing (1988) x. 99 By Monday morning a bitter nor'easter..had shrouded Burgeo under a low and scudding overcast. 1997 A. R. AMMONS Glare 193 Well, it's Easter morning right now, with a nor'easter, out-of-whack, whipper-jawed, eight-inch dump load of snow on the ground.

I'm not very impressed with the credentials of these writers for establishing the pronunciation (or spelling) of a characteristically New England meteorological phenomenon: A. J. Cronin is from Scotland; Farley Mowat comes from inland western Canada (though he lived in Nova Scotia for some time); A. R. Ammons is from North Carolina. Of course, as A. Austin indicates, they have (very different things called) northeasters in England as well, but I'm not sure that should count.

I'm no weatherman, but as Gertrude Burnham explained it to me when I was a kid, a northeaster is a winter storm that travels (from southwest to northeast) up the coast, with its center off shore, so that the counter-clockwise circulation of the storm blows in off the ocean full of moisture (from the northeast), dumping the load of moisture as snow and ice when it cools down over the land. Here's a page with pictures that seems to be talking about the same thing.

Subject to correction, the picture that seems to be emerging is that nor'easter is a literary affectation. This would make it something like e'en for even and th'only for the only, which I have been told originated as an indication in spelling that two syllables count for only one position in metered verse, with no implications for actual pronunciation. The comparison with sou'wester is interesting. There are two obvious differences between the two words: the theta in southwester is preconsonantal, whereas in northeaster it's prevocalic; and southwester is also an old word for a common article of clothing, namely an oilskin rain hat, with equivalents in Dutch zuidwester and German südwester.

I wonder if there have ever been American speech communities -- other than journalists -- in which nor'easter was the normal pronunciation? Maybe nor'easter should be added to yourDictionary.com's list of 100 Most Often Mispronounced Words. Or a new list of 100 most inauthentic pronunciations.

Posted by Mark Liberman at January 25, 2004 07:49 PM