The Mainer Gets Down On Nor'east
TURN the crank, Jimmy, and let's run this tape through again. This is a replay!
Well, over many years this theme has been treated variously here from time to time, and so far nobody has paid the slightest attention. Why not trot it along by again as if 'twere brand, spanking new? It has to do with these folks who go through life saying nor'east when they mean northeast, and thinking by this error they establish themselves as salty sea- wielders of the true nautical lingo. "Heave, ho, my hearties - up with the main sheet and cast off!" That sort of thing. Just lately our Atlantic sea board enjoyed a belated line storm, and immediately the media - radio, TV, and print - favored us again with the perennial nonsense: "Northeast reeling from Nor'easter," said one headline.
It was a bit of a hullabaloo. The wind took Ronnie Carlson's henhouse door over to Henniker, New Hampshire, and we had some high tides. There was damage, all right. But nor'easter? There is a cultural perversity to this.
Northeast is a perfectly good word, and presumption decides it may be contracted to nor'east. It can't, and it never was. Webster's Third gives us northeast, as it should, but nor'east can be found in some less-careful dictionaries with the meaning of "northeast." So why not northeast?
It's somewhat like dialect. If you ask a Vermonter how to spell caow, he'll say c-o-w. And the thing about northeast is that it is pronounced knowtheast - the th as in this-that-these-those rather than theology and thing.
To say nor'east is to identify yourself absolutely as a landlubber - the playtime mariner who runs up the binnacle and unties a rope. Every down-Mainer will tell you that knowtheast is spelled northeast.
There is no oddity about this; it comes from the responsibility of sailing a ship, with care for the vessel, her cargo, her crew, and the expectations of the owners. With knowtheast you would be safe.
So, once again: North, as a direction important at sea, was pronounced knowth. It was the cardinal point of the beginning of the compass rose, the place to start.
There was a small superstition about that - a vessel leaving the pier outward bound should always "fill to the knowth" - th as in thousand. Once the vessel was under way the captain, or his mate, could change the set of sails and go anywhere. But the start was important.
The four cardinal points of the compass are N, S, E, and W. Everybody knows that, including the Boy Scouts. But down-Maine in the days of sail, every man-child could box the compass with the other 32 secondary points - reeling them off like a stanza of poetry for Friday exercises. Girls, too - my sister sing-songed 'em for jump rope.
The way the compass points were spelled, and the way they were pronounced at sea made a difference of great importance. Orders to a crew came from the after-deck, and before electricity the only amplification was a megaphone.
In a "pert" wind, with the sea rolling over the tumblehome, any word that could sound like any other word was a grievous mistake. Northeast was pronounced know-theast, but northwest was nor-west. From this, I suppose, the erroneous nor'east evolved. Southeast was sow-theast, as in lady pig, and southwest was sow-west. A sow-wester is a rainstorm hat favored by Gloucester bankers. (Grand Bank, not bank bank.) Enunciate those points into the wind, and you'll see why ships came safely home and nobody on a b oat ever said nor'east.
From N to E, the intermediate points are: North by East, North North East, Northeast by North, Northeast, Northeast by East, East Northeast, and East by North. And so around to knowth again.
Just suppose some newspaper headline writer was in command. Let the breeze be freshening a doit from sow-sow-west, with a good chance along past Sequin and around Whitehead, and that headline writer calls out to move a leetle mite back to nor-nor-west, and the boy at the wheel thinks he said nor'east. I can hear Cap'n Jule Soule now with his withering opinion. He'd say, "That ain't no way to run a newspaper."