The Grammarphobia Blog

Is a “nor’easter” full of hot air?

Q: “Nor’easter”: A phony? I await your comment.

A: Yes, “nor’easter” has been exposed. It’s not the charming regionalism that it pretends to be.

We wrote a post to this effect back in 2007, and we’ve also written about it in Origins of the Specious, our book about language myths and misconceptions. Here’s an excerpt from the book:

“New England has given us plenty: Boston baked beans, Vermont maple syrup, the Red Sox, Robert Frost, L. L. Bean, and the image of a Maine lobsterman, his yellow slicker flapping in the wind as he braves a menacing nor’easter. The only problem with this stormy picture is that no self-respecting Penobscot Bay lobsterman would use the term ‘nor’easter.’ No, it’s not, as many TV weather people have led us to believe, a quaint New England regionalism.

“The word ‘nor’easter’ is a contraction of ‘northeaster,’ a blustery storm with northeasterly winds. The storm has long been associated with New England, but the term ‘nor’easter’ isn’t native to the land of clam chowdah, according to many linguists and a great many coastal New Englanders. The locals, they say, have always pronounced the word by dropping the two r’s, not the th, making it sound something like ‘nawtheastah.’

“As for where ‘nor’easter’ comes from, it all started in England, not New England. The earliest published reference to ‘nor’easter’ in the Oxford English Dictionary is from an 1837 translation of an Aristophanes play, The Knights: ‘Slack your sheet! A strong nor’easter’s groaning.’ ”

Hmm. Doesn’t sound very Greek, does it? At any rate, as we go on to say in Origins:

“The OED has even earlier citations for the abbreviations ‘nor’ and ‘nor’east,’ which have been used to refer to compass points since Elizabethan times.

“So how did ‘nor’easter’ cross the Atlantic and end up in the mouth of that mythical Maine lobsterman? The linguist Mark Liberman, who grew up in southern New England, says the term ‘seems faker to me than the lederhosen at the Biergarten in Walt Disney World.’ He attributes the usage to overimaginative journalists who probably embraced ‘nor’easter’ as a ‘literary affectation’ (like ‘e’en’ for ‘even’). ‘However,’ Liberman says, ‘as a linguist I have to admit that a nor’easter is what storms like this have become, in the English language at large, whether we like it or not.’”

We conclude that when a regionalism is just too charming not to exist, then it has to be invented.

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