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Jewish World Review
April 20, 2007
/ 2 Iyar 5767
Media falls in love with a new scare word: When did big, bad storms suddenly become Nor'easters?
It wasn't a storm. It wasn't a tempest. It wasn't a hurricane and it wasn't a typhoon. It wasn't a torrential rainfall. It wasn't a squall either and it most certainly wasn't a thundersquall. No, the news services were very specific about what to call the big rain that hit the eastern seaboard this week it was a NOR'EASTER. As a matter of fact the AP headlines read:
"Powerful Nor'easter Pounds Northeast"
Nor'easter pounds Northeast, nice alliteration huh? Nor'easter. Funny, and I would have thought it was only a huge storm. It just goes to show you just how wrong you can be. But you can't really blame me. From the pictures I saw in the papers and on television it sure looked like a storm a really bad one. Hundreds of people were evacuated, they said. Thousands more were without power. Teeming rain drenched the Northeast with a record rainfall that caused mudslides, washouts and flooded streets. 1,400 New Jersey residents were evacuated because of flooding. Boats were sunk, large trees fell, and many people were stranded. Nine people were killed. It sure looked like a huge storm. No. It was a NOR'EASTER.
The National Weather Service said that the rain totaled 8.21 inches in suburban White Plains from early Sunday to Monday morning, with close to 8 inches in New York City's Central Park. The previous Central Park record for April 15 was just 1.8 inches, set in 1906. Eliot, Maine, got nearly 7 inches. Snow fell in many inland areas, including 17 inches in Vermont. Pounding waves completely covered the beach at Hampton Beach, N.H. Wind gusts to more than 80 mph toppled trees on highways in Maine. Big storm, huh? Nope. NOR'EASTER.
Up until the last couple of years or so I only heard the term "nor'easter" used in those old movies where a crusty retired sea captain who is now the local lighthouse man (usually played by Walter Brennan or Arthur Hunnicutt) screems out to the coastal villagers, "I'm a-tellin' ya right now you folks had betteh batten down them shutters and git into them storm cellahs afore mid-day 'cause we got a nor'easer a-blowin up an' she's a-gonna rip this heah town eveh which way but right!" Now nor'easter isn't just for New England sea captains anymore. The media has discovered the term "nor'easter" and they love it.
Whenever the media falls in love with a new word or phrase it stirs my curiousity, and so I thought I'd look the word up for myself. Here's what I found:
The term "nor'easter" comes to American English by way of British English and the points of the compass and wind or sailing direction. According to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), the first recorded use in the English language of the term "nore" ("north") in association with the points of the compass and wind direction is by Dekker in 1612 ("How blowes the winde Syr?" "Wynde! is Nore-Nore-West."), with similar uses occurring in 1688 (". . . Nore and Nore-West . . .") and in 1718 (". . . Nore-west or Nore-nore-west."). These recorded uses are predated by use of the term "noreast," first recorded as used by Davis in 1594 ("Noreast by North raiseth a degree in sayling 24 leagues.").
According to the OED, the first recorded use of the term "nor'easter" occurs in 1836 in a translation of Aristophanes. The term "nor'easter" naturally developed from the historical spellings and pronunciations of the compass points and the direction of wind or sailing. Aha! The term does most definitely have a nautical derivation. No wonder it was used by all those old sea captains in all those old movies.
Common coastal New England pronunciation (both seafaring and not) for "nor'easter" is "naw-THEE-stuh" (like "LOB-stah" for "lobster"). See? It's a Percy Kilbride word. I knew it! A word that would feel right at home on any episode of "Murder She Wrote."
For years and years, Edgar Comee, of Brunswick, Maine, waged a single-minded war 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 out hundreds of postcards, were chronicled, just before his death at the age of 88, in "The New Yorker" magazine. Despite Mr. Comee's gallant efforts, not to mention the efforts of many others, use of the term continues by the press. More than ever.
I go along with Mr. Comee in thinking that the use of the term by the press (and now the greater media) is pretentious and loathsome. But after all … that's the media in a nutshell, isn't it? It seems that more than ever, for the media, being loathsome and pretentious is job number one.
I still think what happened this week on the east coast was a big storm. And since I am neither a seafaring old salt, nor a New England old timer, I will not use the term "nor'easter" to describe a big storm. I'll leave the "nor'easters" to the character actors of the 30's and the characters in the newsrooms of today.
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