"A pretentious and altogether lamentable affectation"

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I've long since given up writing about the fakeness of the term "nor'easter" (see "Nor'easter considered fake", 1/25/2004; "The storm is real, the word is still fake", 1/22/2005), partly because it's futile, and partly because it doesn't matter, and mostly because people are entitled to use phony dialect forms if they want — here as elsewhere, usage is et ius et norma loquendi.

But today's mail brought this note from George Hand,  who seems to have been inspired by all the recent nor'easter-news to refer back my earlier posts on the subject (the first of which quotes Jan Freeman quoting him):

Edgar Comee had the right idea: "Edgar Comee, of Brunswick, Maine, waged a determined battle against use of the term "nor’easter" by the press, which usage he considered “a pretentious and altogether lamentable affectation” and "the odious, even loathsome, practice of landlubbers who would be seen as salty as the sea itself." His efforts, which included mailing hundreds of postcards, were profiled, just before his death at the age of 88, in The New Yorker."

By way of background, I grew up on Cape Cod in the forties and fifties when the regional Yankee accents were still alive and well (the "Cape Cod" accent is pretty well gone on Cape Cod but I heard it occasionally when I worked in the Brockton area during the '90s). A real Yankee, for whom a terminal "r" is almost as difficult as either of our surviving "th"s are for, say, Germans (my maternal grandparents were native German speakers and could never get any closer to it than a "d" sound), would pronounce the word either "nawtheastah" or "nahtheastah" (up country tended to favor the first; Plymouth County speakers including the Cape and Brockton, the latter).

You're right about the 19th literary affectation of phony New Englandisms. I remember the first time I picked up a Joseph Lincoln novel set on Cape Cod. A hoot! Also, tracing an accent back to Merrie Olde is specious in itself. The New England accent is a bunch of accents partly due to pre-TV linguistic isolation but also due to WHERE in England people came from. Plymouth County settlers came by way of Cornwall from God knows where while Mass Bay settlers came from the east coast of England where the accent was quite different. (They agree only on the inability to pronounce the "r" in north).

(The New Yorker item on Edgar Comee is here.)

[Because of the apostrophe, neither the Google n-grams search function nor Mark Davies' COHA corpus search tool will tell us anything about the history of nor'easter. One more example of why researchers need access to the actual data, not just to fun but limited search interfaces.

Jan Freeman did some more old-fashioned research back in 2003, and came up with this:

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.

It would be nice to be able to extend her search.]


  1. J. W. Brewer said,

    December 28, 2010 @ 2:18 pm

    So is this also a phony-dialect fraud: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sou%27wester ?

  2. Lazar said,

    December 28, 2010 @ 2:29 pm

    George H.'s observation regarding "nawtheastah" and "nahtheastah" is certainly a reference to the horse-hoarse distinction which is maintained among some Eastern New England speakers (although even among non-rhotics, the distinguishers are a decided minority, and an aging one at that). A non-rhotic merger would pronounce "north" with [nɔəθ], whereas a distinguisher would pronounce it [nɒːθ] – ironically, the maintenance of the horse-hoarse distinction carries with it a merger of its own, that of the horse vowel into the general "cot-caught-bother" vowel, [ɒː]. This is definitely not the same as the ENE "father" vowel – a nice central [aː] – so George H.'s use of "ah" is, strictly speaking, erroneous, although we can't expect much more from a fauxnetic transcription.

    I've heard a fair number of distinguishers from the southeastern and central parts of Massachusetts, but I don't think a single one of them has been under 40. My family presents a typical case: my late grandfather, born in Worcester in 1924, was a non-rhotic horse-hoarse distinguisher; but my mother, born in Worcester in 1946, is a non-rhotic horse-hoarse merger. Non-rhoticism may cling to life here for some time to come, but I think the horse-hoarse distinction (a thing I find delightfully folksy) is on its last legs.

    (Forgive the tangent, but I love ENE phonetics and I couldn't resist.)

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  4. Faldone said,

    December 28, 2010 @ 4:02 pm

    Are complaints of this sort some kind of evil twin of the etymological fallacy? As you say, there's no arguing with Norma, not when she's got the jus.

  5. Mr Punch said,

    December 28, 2010 @ 4:04 pm

    @J.W. Brewer – "Sou'wester" is certainly authentic as applied to a kind of hat( or coat); I've heard it pronounced that way by fishermen in Gloucester, Mass., where the hat apparently originated.

    [(myl) This is also my experience. One important difference is that -wester starts with a consonant — which makes elision of a preceding consonant more likely — whereas -easter starts with a vowel. But in any case, they're different words which may have different histories.]

  6. Morten Jonsson said,

    December 28, 2010 @ 4:07 pm

    The first quoted paragraph confused. I figured out that the double quotes inside double quotes should actually be single, but I had to do some Googling to find out who George H. is quoting. It's the Wikipedia page on "nor'easter." I'm sure his original note makes that clear, but you might want to say so here.

  7. Morten Jonsson said,

    December 28, 2010 @ 4:08 pm

    Confused me, that is.

  8. KevinM said,

    December 28, 2010 @ 4:42 pm

    I'm sure you meant nor'loquendi.

  9. empty said,

    December 28, 2010 @ 4:44 pm

    Then there's the question of whether the recent storm in NE was a blizzard. According to today's Boston Globe "… meteorologists are beginning to pore over the data to determine whether the Christmas weekend nor'easter […] earned its stripes as a blizzard. To many people it's mere semantics: Blizzard or not, people are still shoveling out …"

  10. Mr Fnortner said,

    December 28, 2010 @ 4:52 pm

    Wikipedia keeps the controversy alive, and names names (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nor%27easter). The evidence that nor east dates to before 1600, and the existence of that spelling on a 1607 compass card are compelling. Yet the link between nor east and nor'easter is established only by this unadorned assertion: "The term 'nor'easter' naturally developed from the historical spellings and pronunciations of the compass points and the direction of wind or sailing." I think the phrase naturally developed is doing a lot of work here that no one at Wikipedia is able to document. The vague deprecations of Liberman's counterpoint do not qualify as etymology, I'm afraid.

    [(myl) I certainly don't know the whole history. But Edgar Comee, George H. and I are agreed that 50 to 100 years ago, Yankee oldtimers in Maine, Connecticut and Massachusetts did not elide the last consonant of north in the storm name "northeaster". At least, the ones that we knew didn't. And Jan Freeman has shown that the dominating "nor'easter" usage in the media is a relatively recent phenomenon, though it's not clear where and when it started, or how it spread.

    The OED offers evidence (as I noted back in 2004) that nor'easter was used by English writers in the 19th century (mostly in eye-dialect passages), and similarly by Farley Mowatt (a Canadian) in 1972 and by A.R. Ammons (a Carolinian) in 1997. I don't know whether these represent genuine regionalisms or not, but let's grant for the sake of argument that they do. My point is simply that when the American media has featured these storms in recent decades, they've been talking about the Eastern Seaboard from Virginia to Maine. And the elided pronunciation (and spelling) is not traditional in (most of?) that region, but has (at best) been adopted from elsewhere.

    So its advent is an interesting exercise in cultural dynamics, and it would be nice to know more about how it happened.]

  11. davep said,

    December 28, 2010 @ 5:08 pm

    Arr! I be blaming it on the pirates!

  12. iching said,

    December 28, 2010 @ 5:13 pm

    By the way, while Google searches can't handle punctuation, COCA corpus can. You need to put a space before and after the apostrophe. I found 6 examples when I did the search.

    [(myl) Thanks! But I was hoping to find something in COHA (the historical corpus), though I brainlessly wrote COCA instead. And although northeaster turns up 47 hits in COHA, starting in 1834, nor ' easter finds nothing at all.]

  13. Bobbie said,

    December 28, 2010 @ 7:49 pm

    No matter how it is pronounced or spelled, a storm with prevailing winds from the northeast will push the water inland to the south (west) of it and prevent the high tide from receding. I live south of the Chesapeake Bay in Virginia and can speak from way too much experience about those dratted storms and the mess they make!

  14. Nathan Myers said,

    December 28, 2010 @ 8:58 pm

    From my vantage point edging the Pacific Ocean, I doubt I've ever encountered "northeaster", over several decades. "Nor'easter" seems entirely familiar, but only from reading. I might never have heard either one spoken.

    I'm embarrassed at my gullibility. Next you'll be telling me it's supposed to be "currying Fauvel".

    [(myl) I don't think the phenomenon itself exists on the west coast of North America. Meteorological details here.]

  15. Brett R said,

    December 28, 2010 @ 10:43 pm

    If you search the COHA for [nor?easter], you'll find 41 hits, beginning with:
    1 1869 FIC MenWomenGhosts: and there was snow in the sky now, setting in for a regular nor'easter.

    [(myl) Interesting. The most impressive one is from Joshua Slocum's 1899 Sailing Alone Around The World:

    Smooth-water sailors say, " Where is her overhang? " They never crossed the Gulf Stream in a nor'easter, and they do not know what is best in all weathers. For your life, build no fantail overhang on a craft going offshore.

    Slocum was certainly no poseur. On the other hand, he was Canadian, from Nova Scotia. So maybe this was (at least in part) a Canadian regionalism?]

  16. John Atkinson said,

    December 28, 2010 @ 10:54 pm

    I'm also overlooking the Pacific (on the east coast of Oz), and I've certainly heard "nor'easter" spoken (though nor'wester seems more common, especially in NZ, where they're a major component of the weather cycle). I'm non-rhotic, like everyone here, and have the usual linking and intrusive R's between morphemes ending in certain vowels and morphemes starting with any vowel. However, I tend to pronounce as /nɔ:'i:stə/, without intruding an /r/, which I suppose implies that the word's monomorphemic for me.

  17. Mark Davies said,

    December 28, 2010 @ 11:48 pm

    >> Because of the apostrophe, neither the Google n-grams search function nor Mark Davies' COHA corpus search tool will tell us anything about the history of nor'easter. One more example of why researchers need access to the actual data, not just to fun but limited search interfaces.

    Sorry, I accidentally submitted this before I finished the post.

    Anyway, both searches are quite simple (one word) and they both work fine.


    (BTW, the COCA data shows a clear increase since the early 1990s, though it's based on just 70 tokens.)

    I'm not not sure why there is a comment about "one more example of why researchers need access to the actual data, not just to **fun but limited search interfaces** ."

    In what other ways are COCA/COHA "limited"? Are there any other large web-accessible corpora that provide a wider range of queries than COCA/COHA? If so, please let all of us know where they are.

    Along these lines:

    If researchers are having problems with queries, they're always welcome to email me and I'd be glad to help.

    Mark Davies

    [(myl) This is really puzzling. Did you change something? Because when I tried this same search not long ago, I got advice about the need to split words at apostrophes; and when I tried that, I got nothing.

    Anyhow, it's nice that it works now. (And perhaps always did, except in the parallel-universe that I come from?)]

  18. Jan Freeman said,

    December 29, 2010 @ 12:27 am

    The Maine monthly paper Working Waterfront is also anti-"nor'easter." A piece attacking it (http://www.workingwaterfront.com/columns/To-the-media-a-no-theast-kick-in-the-pants/11676) quotes from "The World of Carrick's Cove" (a 1957 novel), where a Mainer narrates: "Generally it was the northeasters that gave us the biggest blows … Every now and then I see the word set down as `noreaster,' when anyone writes it that way you can tell he's a landlubber. No seaman ever says `noreaster' … We had to say the compass points a good deal in the old days so as there'd be no chance of a mistake, and the world had to be spoken `no-theast." Anyone who tried to say `noreast' or anything but* `no-theast' would likely get a kick in the pants."

    *"But" is mistranscribed "by" in the quote.

  19. iching said,

    December 29, 2010 @ 4:53 am

    @Mark Davies:
    I have tried searching the COCA corpus for a few months now and I think it's great! But I am still not experienced enough as evidenced by my comment above where I tried to search for nor'easter and found only 6 tokens, whereas your search revealed 70 tokens. The reason is that I previously got this help page when I searched for can't

    In nearly all cases, the tagger separates words that have an apostrophe (e.g. we're or don't) or which are a contraction of two separate words (e.g. gonna or gotta). These need to be entered as two separate words, e.g.:
    we 're
    ca n't
    wo n't
    I 've
    gon na
    man 's

    I thought this need to insert spaces around apostrophes used as contractions would also apply to nor'easter, but apparently not. Anyway, the 6 tokens I got this way are in addition to the other 70, so something was gained.

  20. Barrett D said,

    December 29, 2010 @ 6:55 am

    Sounds like the same phenomenon that gives us "N'awlins"? (New Orleans?)

  21. language hat said,

    December 29, 2010 @ 8:59 am

    Sounds like the same phenomenon that gives us "N'awlins"? (New Orleans?)

    No, that accurately reflects a pronunciation used by genuine inhabitants of the city.

  22. Bobbie said,

    December 29, 2010 @ 9:11 am

    Nor'easters is the official way of writing it — by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) as seen in their description of Hurricane Floyd and two preceding storms:
    Hurricane Floyd – September 16, 1999
    "…In the Hampton Roads area, the tide levels reached 6.35 feet above Mean Lower Low Water (MLLW) at Sewells Point. The tide levels were much higher further down the tributary of the Elizabeth River, reaching 7.41 feet above MLLW at Money Point, VA in the city of Chesapeake. These levels were similar to those reached during the first of the twin nor'easters of 1998. These water levels coupled with the copius [sic] amounts of rainfall resulted in overall flooding which rivaled and in a few cases exceeded that of the second of the twin nor'easters on February 4, 1998 and was the most severe flooding since the Ash Wednesday Storm of March 1962." http://www.erh.noaa.gov/er/akq/Floyd.htm

  23. Peter Taylor said,

    December 29, 2010 @ 9:52 am

    I find it somewhat bizarre that Wikipedia and some online dictionaries define the word in terms of the Atlantic coast of the USA, as I understand it to mean a wind from the north-east regardless of geographic location. I don't have any references to usage as dialect (fake or not) in British literature, but I can find a few British companies with "Noreast" in their names, including one registered as Noreast Welding Contractors Ltd in 1977.

  24. davep said,

    December 29, 2010 @ 10:42 am

    Peter Taylor: "as I understand it to mean a wind from the north-east regardless of geographic location."

    The use of the term on the Atlantic coast is more specific than that. It's a storm traveling northeast with winds blowing from the northeast.

    From Liberman's second link: "… 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."

    This succinctly describes what the term is applied to on the Atlantic coast.

  25. Trimegistus said,

    December 29, 2010 @ 11:23 am

    I spent eighteen years in New Orleans and never heard the place called "N'Awlins." One did hear a contracted form, but the W stayed put: "Newallins" or "N'worlins."

  26. E W Gilman said,

    December 29, 2010 @ 11:23 am

    I'd be curious to know if the apparent increase in journalistic use of "nor'easter" has for any of its impetus some direction in some newspaper stylebook.

  27. RiciaH said,

    December 29, 2010 @ 12:39 pm

    FWIW, I just spotted a usage in literature. In Grant Allen's Miss Cayley's Adventures (1899), he has an Irishman in a boat crossing the Mediterranean state 'Is it meself? Sure I've got me big ulsther, and I'm as warrum as a toast in it. But ye're not provided for this weather. Ye've thrusted too much to those rascals the po-uts. 'Where breaks the blue Sicilian say,' the rogues write. I'd like to set them down in it, wid a nor'-easter blowing!'"

    Per wikipedia, Grant Allen was born in Ontario Canada, then moved around a bit before settling long-term in the U.K. The book is available on Project Gutenberg.

  28. Dan S said,

    December 29, 2010 @ 1:12 pm

    @E W Gilman:

    Yes, "some newspaper stylebook" does have an opinion on this. There's the Associated Press Stylebook (PDF Edition: 2006)

    "nor'easter The term used by the National Weather Service for storms that either exit or move north along the East Coast, producing winds blowing from the northeast."

    This was also a tweet by @AP Stylebook (not to be confused with the hugely-entertaining @FakeAPstylebook).

    I would've given you URLs for the PDF stylebook, and for @FakeAPstylebook, but the comments seem to enforce a one-link maximum.

  29. Dan S said,

    December 29, 2010 @ 1:26 pm

    In further newspaper-stylebook news, although @MYL could, in 2005, "applaud the Boston Globe's editorial policy against using [nor'easter]," times have apparently changed. Today's Globe has this headline: Nor’easter churns up Charles River to a yellow hue.

    I wonder whether, some dozen-plus years after the acquisition of the Globe by the Times, the Globe was finally made to abandon its own stylebook in favor of the AP Stylebook, already embraced by the Times?

    [(myl) The change is discussed in Tom Mulvoy, "Nor'easter? Globe caves, follows the crowd", Dorchester Reporter 1/1/2011.]

  30. Mr Fnortner said,

    December 29, 2010 @ 3:11 pm

    So maybe what we have is a neologism, coined by reporters and weather people, that bridges the discontinuity in the etymology with the undeniable appeal of the word (for them). It's not as horrid, or clever, as refudiate, but it's more like non-southerners trying to use the word y'all for the singular you. You want to say, "Please don't," but what's the harm? Locals know better, and the uninformed really can't harm the language.

  31. Darrell said,

    December 29, 2010 @ 5:45 pm

    Jan Freeman quotes,

    "Anyone who tried to say `noreast' or anything but* `no-theast' would likely get a kick in the pants."

    and adds,

    *"But" is mistranscribed "by" in the quote.

    Are you sure that's a mistranscription? I would parse "anything by northeast" (or permutations thereof) as referring to the practice of naming quarter-directions as "east by northeast", "north by northeast" and so forth, and for all I know there may be further nautical usages ending in "by northeast".

  32. language hat said,

    December 30, 2010 @ 11:02 am

    One did hear a contracted form, but the W stayed put: "Newallins" or "N'worlins."

    Good point, but I take the standard form of the contraction as an attempt to represent that actual pronunciation. Unlike "nor'easter," it is not on the face of it wrong, just sloppy.

  33. Paul Mulshine said,

    December 31, 2010 @ 2:05 pm

    I've heard that term used by surfers and fishermen here in New Yersey for as long as I can remember. No one here ever thought it had an origin in New England, any more than the pronunciation of, for example, Greenwich Village did. We also pronounce the county of Gloucester as "Gloster."

  34. Paul Mulshine said,

    December 31, 2010 @ 2:10 pm

    Also in regard to my above comment about the prevalence of the term in New Jersey: It's entirely possible its origin is in old England, not New. Note this reference from a 1987 London Times article on a sailing race: "Slap, slap, slap went the two-foot waves against 300 bows. Buzz, buzz, buzz went the drone of the snub-nosed rescue boats that darted in and out of the fleet. The Force 3 nor'easter blew the boats around the 707-acre reservoir that stands 40 feet above the surrounding roads and built skins of ice on sails and ropes, eyelashes and fingertips."

  35. Paul Mulshine said,

    December 31, 2010 @ 2:12 pm

    Also this from a 1989 Guardian article: "ANY more of these westerly winds and I shall seriously think that the world has capsized. I have had the prevailing nor'easters for just three days in the first fortnight; the tradewind belt seems to have disappeared completely and I cannot think it is caused by the greenhouse effect."

  36. matt tracy said,

    January 2, 2011 @ 8:43 am

    Well, it wasn't a group of Northmen invading in 1066, but Normans.

  37. Will Brockman said,

    January 2, 2011 @ 4:38 pm


    There was a problem with apostrophes in the Ngram viewer front end – my fault, and I corrected it yesterday (1/1/2011). In this corpus, apostrophes and the word components before and after them are tokenized separately, so that "nor'easter" is a 3-gram, as is "I'm" or "can't".

    Here's the comparison: http://ngrams.googlelabs.com/graph?content=nor+%27+easter%2C+northeaster&year_start=1800&year_end=2000&corpus=0&smoothing=3

    The tokenization rules for this corpus are described in detail in the supplementary materials of the Science paper, http://www.sciencemag.org/content/early/2010/12/15/science.1199644/suppl/DC1. Note that apostrophes before an s are *not* tokenized separately, so "Bob's" is a 1-gram.

    Currently the apostrophe is the only character that gets special handling in the viewer – it inserts spaces according to the tokenization rules, and redisplays the query accordingly.

    The "actual data" of the ngram corpus is available at http://ngrams.googlelabs.com/datasets. I'm really looking forward to seeing other tools that make use of this data.

  38. DA Krolak said,

    January 2, 2011 @ 8:10 pm

    Note – the same problem with apostrophes seems to happen with hyphens as in e-mail vs email?

  39. Will Brockman said,

    January 2, 2011 @ 10:12 pm

    DA Krolak,

    In this corpus, hyphens are treated as separate words: your query will work if expressed as "e – mail" instead of "e-mail". (End-of-line hyphens, incidentally, are handled before tokenization occurs.)

    I understand that the ngrams viewer frontend could be more helpful about rewriting queries that aren't consistent with the tokenization rules. I've added that to our list of tasks.

    In the meantime, the tokenization rules are described in detail here:

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