A “nor’easter,” a “northeaster,” a northeast storm, or does it even matter?

NAM model simulation of Nor'easter centered off the coast of the NC Outer Banks Thursday night. Gray lines show direction wind is blow from (WeatherBell.com)

NAM model simulation of Nor’easter centered off the coast of the NC Outer Banks Thursday night. Gray lines show direction wind is blow from (WeatherBell.com)

Depending on your point of view, you either love or hate the capricious disturbances commonly called “nor’easters, one of which we are about to experience.   They can arise at any time of year, but occur mostly from October through April.  Even hurricanes, when they move up the Atlantic coast are “nor’easters.”

But without doubt, except for hurricanes, it’s the wintertime version which represents such a large part of our weather lore and causes the most excitement, anticipation, travel disruption—and, yes, forecasting difficulties/nightmares.

Kocin and Uccellini, in their masterful two-part treatise, Northeast Snowstorms, literally wrote the book on the characteristics and behavior of these storms, discussing scores of them in great detail from early colonial times.  And the late David Ludlum, America’s premier weather historian, chronicled many others going back to the time of the first European settlers.

But what exactly does the term “nor’easter”  really signify? We all know, of course, that it’s a contraction for a “northeast storm”—of any season.  But beyond that, what does it mean, and what do Kocin and Uccellini—and others—have in mind when they refer to nor’easters?

You may think this little quiz is too simplistic for the weather buffs that most of you are. But maybe not, as my little informal survey showed that the term is sometimes misunderstood.  And even if you make the right choice, do you think this type of storm is really unique to the northeastern United States?

Personally, I’ve always thought it somewhat strange that experts confine their discussions of the great atmospheric convulsions called “nor’easters” to just the northeastern part of our country, excluding other parts of North America or, for that matter, the world.

In the U.S., heavy snowfall (or rain if it is too warm) is most likely to occur in the forward left or even rear left (wrap-around) quadrant of a low pressure system moving eastward or northeastward, or even northward, such as the “Groundhog Day Blizzard of 2011” did in the Midwest.  After forming in Texas, that storm “took a nearly direct [northward] track out of Texas” (before turning northeastward), burying southern Wisconsin and northern Illinois under 1-2 feet of snow.

There are many variations of the above pattern, of course, but generally, it means that most American cities, experience east to northeast, or even northerly winds during the heart of a snowstorm.  It also means that the storm center is passing by to the east, or possibly southeast which, in my mind, makes it a “nor’easter,”—no matter where you live.

Of course, there’s the argument that some Atlantic Coast nor’easters attain such great intensity due to the proximity of the Gulf Stream and frigid North American air masses.  That argument is well taken, along with the idea that the term “nor’easter,” especially in New England, is a fundamental part of their weather lexicon—one that seems to be “as old as the hills.”

But what about the ferocious blizzards that periodically blast the Plains States and the Midwest with their (sometimes hurricane force) northeast or northerly winds, such as the late February 2013 Plains blizzard–the second in a week–which buried parts of Texas, Oklahoma, and Kansas with 1-2 feet of snow?  I suppose that if I lived there, it would be heresy to call those storms “nor’easters.”

According to George Mason University’s History News Network (HNN), the term “nor’easter,” has a long New England tradition, having been first used by a Boston newspaper in 1753.  It apparently found it’s way into American English from British English and has to do with the 32 points of the compass, “nor-east” being just one of them and slightly shortened for the sake of pronunciation.  But as popular as the term is, it has not been without its detractors.

As recently as 2006, William Sisson, editor of Soundings, editorialized that “the use of ’nor’easter’ to describe the storm system is common along the U.S. East Coast. Yet, it has been asserted by some that [the term] ‘nor’easter’ as a contraction for ‘northeaster’ has no basis in regional New England dialect and is a ‘fake’ word.  Nevertheless, New Englanders love their “noar-eastuhs,” or at least love to reminisce about them.”

In addition, according to TBKB, a Brooklyn blog, Edgar Comee, of Brunswick, Maine, fought for many years against the press’s  use of the term “nor’easter, “which 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.

Today, notwithstanding the efforts of Sisson and Comee, the term “nor’easter” seems to be alive and well.  In fact, as reported by the Boston Globe nine years ago , “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.”

I would suspect that today, the contraction’s usage would be even much greater.

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