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A nor(th)easter in a teapot

A nor(th)easter in a teapot

We’re fortunate. Our readers have never been shy about pointing out errors we’ve made, including the misuse of nautical terms, no matter how arcane or dusty they may have become.

Somehow, we have flown these many years beneath the linguistic radar of one Edgar Comee of Brunswick, Maine. For some time Comee led a one-man grassroots effort to eradicate from popular (and growing) usage the word “nor’easter,” a contraction he considered an affectation spoken by those who want to appear saltier than they really are. Others in this very loose confederation claim the word is a “phony,” and blame its ascension on the media, in particular TV weather people.

The late Ed Myers of Damariscotta, Maine, called the burgeoning use of “nor’easter” a “festering sore in today’s marine and weather journalism” in a 1994 column that appeared in Working Waterfront, a publication of the Island Institute of Rockland, Maine.

University of Pennsylvania linguist Mark Liberman has stated that the word seems “faker to me than the lederhosen at the Biergarten in Walt Disney World.”

So just what is the correct pronunciation for this storm that we are all too familiar with? Comee and others would say “northeaster” or “no’theaster,” but like a genie who escapes its bottle, “nor’easter” is not going away.

A story in The New Yorker magazine’s The Talk of the Town section in September reminded me again of this linguistic squall that I first heard about several years ago. And it pointed me to Comee, who had taken the magazine to task earlier in the year for a single “nor’easter” transgression.

I tried to reach Comee recently but learned that he’d died in October at the age of 88. I spoke to his daughter, Deborah Cowperthwaite, to find out more about her father and his unique campaign.

“He had more than one campaign,” she assured me. “He had this postcard …”

Ah, yes, the postcard. Whenever Comee spotted a reference to “nor’easter” he would send the offender a blue postcard excoriating them for using a word he declared was a “pretentious and altogether lamentable affectation, the odious, even loathsome, practice of landlubbers” trying to sound salty. It was signed by Comee, who identified himself as “Chairman, Ad Hoc Committee for Stamping Out Nor’easter.”

Comee, as you may have guessed by now, was something of a character. “He had a great interest in words his whole life,” says Cowperthwaite. “And he loved the sea. He was delightful, but he could be a pain in the neck. And he was a prankster all his life.”

He wrote his own obituary, which included the various organizations to which he belonged, everything from the National Conference of Editorial Writers and the Orr’s-Bailey Yacht Club to the Reasonably Loyal Order of Neo-Silurians. The latter, of course, was a Comee fiction (the Silurian is a geologic period), but he would have been happy to know it made it into the papers.

An avid sailor and Maine native, Comee served in the Navy in World War II, skippering a series of minesweepers. (He also was called back into active service for Korea.) He taught high school English early in his career. Following the war, he worked as a reporter and later became the editorial page director for three Portland newspapers. Comee left Maine in 1961 and held various jobs within the State Department until his retirement in 1974, when he was able to pursue his passion for sailing. He cruised extensively aboard his 36-foot ketch, which he often sailed alone.

Cowperthwaite can’t recall exactly when her father began his “nor’easter” crusade, but she figures it had to have been at least a dozen years ago. “I kept saying to him, ‘Dad, language evolves. You can’t stop it. You may not like it, but you can’t change it,’ ” Cowperthwaite recalls. “But he didn’t want to hear that. He felt it was pretentious. That it was wrong.”

As I spoke by phone with Liberman, the linguist, he searched for the two words in a database of 1,100 magazines and newspapers published from 1740 through 1900. The earliest reference he found for “northeaster” (as it describes the storm) was in 1824; “nor’easter” first showed up in 1871.

“It looks to me like the northeaster usage was around earlier, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t pronounced that way [nor ’easter],” says Liberman. “I grew up [in Mansfield, Conn.] hearing people say northeaster, so that’s what I say. I wouldn’t be surprised if there may be little subcultures on this point.” People in southern New England might pronounce it one way, for instance, and those in northern New England another.

For the record, we searched our archives and found that Soundings used “nor’easter” in 65 stories between 1989 and 2005. I also did a quick informal poll of a half-dozen sailors, powerboaters and fishermen I know — I guarantee there isn’t a poser in the bunch — and all of them, myself included, say “nor’easter.” A Google Web search for “nor’easter” generated about 2.6 million results, “northeaster” about 109,000.

I’m not sure what any of this proves. Agree or disagree, I do know that nor’easter is here to stay.

I would have liked getting to know Mr. Comee, despite the fact that we would have differed over how to pronounce nor(th)easter. And I would have enjoyed receiving one of his postcards.