Let's get it straight now: Storm is a 'northeaster'

By Tom Mulvoy
Associate Editor

This is the time of year when a ring of falsity fills the air hereabouts: As storm clouds move up the coast and the winds shift to the north and east, the phony word “nor’easter” is on far too many lips, including those of people who surely know better.

After years of keeping to a high standard, the Boston Globe has for several years now been using that apostrophic description to mark the onset of a stretch of stormy winter weather in New England. Pronunciation that leaves out the “r” sound is the way linguistically stubborn New Englanders and Bostonians have spoken for centuries, as in “hahbis” for harbors, “bahjis” for barges, “cahs” for cars, “Dawchestah” for Dorchester, and “nawtheastahs” for northeasters.

So why nor’easter, with its pointedly accented “r” sound, from TV weather watchers, broadcasters, and journalists alike?

Gerald Warner Brace, the late professor, author, and embracer of New England culture and usages, once told a Globe reporter he had no doubt that the use of “nor’easter” is an attempt “by many an outsider to adopt Coastal speech as a way of being accepted and admired.” The result, he said, is that a person “finds himself talking like a stage Yankee from a 19th-century melodrama.”

There is evidence that the contraction usage is of fairly recent coinage locally. In a column item discussing the terms a decade ago, Globe language maven Jan Freeman noted that “from 1975 to 1980, journalists used the ‘nor’easter’ spelling only once in five mentions of such storms; in the past year [2003], more than 80 percent of northeasters were spelled nor’easter.”

As things go today, this lapse of sensitivity to local vernacular by a once-pre-eminent local institution, local broadcast organizations, and just folks is surely of small moment, a nod of testament to the alluring culture of the day wherein much that was saluted in the past is laid waste in the service of the new and now.