Tuesday, October 25, 2005

Nor'easters, Cyclones, Pinballing Storms: The Silly Language of Weather

What kind of storm are we having today? The newspapers that cover the Long Island Sound region all say it's a nor'easter. The Stamford Advocate says so, as does the Hartford Courant; the Journal News quotes a meteorologist saying so; the New London Day asserts that it's a "near-Nor'easter," assigning an upper-case N and thus elevating it to the status of proper noun.

All these references sent me to the archives of The New Yorker, where I found this Talk of the Town piece from a couple of months ago, about a crank in Maine who has taken it upon himself to eradicate the abominable contraction, nor'easter. When Edgar Comee reads, or hears on the news, an account of a nor'easter, he sends out a postcard he has had printed:

“Now hear this!” the card begins. “The use of nor’easter to describe a northeast storm is a pretentious and altogether lamentable affectation, the odious, even loathsome, practice of landlubbers who would be seen as salty as the sea itself.”

Comee claims that a coastal storm with winds pushing back toward land from the northeast is a northeaster. If a contraction is necessary, he says, it's probably "no'theaster," which approximates the way some New Englanders might pronounce it.

I have a theory, based on no research, about how "nor'easter" became so common. It has to do with the most odious of assignments for a newspaper reporter: the weather story.

Editors of mediocre dailies (and I should know, I worked for one for 17 years) have an almost pathological attraction to stories about the weather. They see them as a way to write about the things readers are talking about. Reporters see weather stories for what they are -- filler that states the obvious: "See that white stuff out there? It's snow."

Editors and reporters are constantly in conflict about this. Unfortunately, newsroom battles are always won by editors, and reporters have to make the best of it.

Back in July and August of 1993, I had a streak of about two months where literally one-third of the 30 stories I wrote were about how hot it was. I was supposed to be covering the environment, and the constant weather assignments were one conflict in along-running feud between me and my editor, a true mediocrity whom the reporters dubbed "Alfalfa" because of a vague resemblance to the Little Rascals character and who I had detested for years on the basic principle that he was an idiot.

Each time I saw Alfalfa approach me in the newsroom, I figured I was about to get another assignment to write a story saying how hot it was in summer. If I saw him in time, I could try to take evasive action. On one occasion I succeeded -- I must have persuaded him that I was already working on a story for the next day. Back then, the newspaper had a primitive e-mail system that allowed reporters to communicate with each other via two- or three-line messages. When Alfalfa walked away and I returned to my story, I fired off a message to a colleague: "Dodged another weather story!"

At the end of the year I received my annual performance evaluation. Parts of it did not make me happy and I attributed those parts to my personal conflict with Alfalfa. So I went in to discuss it with the executive editor. This fellow was a smarmy and very smart lifer at our newspaper chain, who quickly became known and loathed for his fake collegiality, and he is now the executive editor of one of the biggest papers in the country.

Among other things, we began to discuss my disenchantment with having to write so many weather stories. It was as if he had been waiting for me to fall into his trap. He went into his file and pulled out a piece of paper. "But you were trying to get out of writing weather stories! Back in August you sent a message that said, 'Dodged another weather story!' " I immediately realized my blunder. In my exultance over not having to write about how hot it was, I had dashed off the message and sent it not to a trusted colleague but to Alfalfa himself. As if to prove just how petty editors can be, he sent it to Mr. Fake Collegiality, who actually kept it to use against me.

This pretty much sealed my fate. About a month later, wishing to leave the viper pit I was caught in, I asked to be transferred from the environment beat to the village of Mount Kisco, an internal exile and demotion that perfectly encapsulated my professional despair. But I outlasted Mr. Fake Collegiality and Alfalfa. Both left after about three years, and the new editors -- both of whom are still toiling productively at the paper --- declared me rehabilitated and returned me to the environment beat.

But I digress....

The conflict over weather stories causes a defense mechanism among reporters. Unless a storm is really severe, they can't take the assignment too seriously, so they look for ways to liven things up, both for the readers and for their own sanity. They quote colorful characters, the delve into the science of meteorology, and they use inflated language. Today, for example, two newspapers refer to Wilma not just as a hurricane, but as a cyclone. Why? Not because any reader needs to start thinking of hurricanes as cyclones that happen to be in the Atlantic, but because it keeps the reporters from going crazy with boredom.

From Newsday: Today's storm is "a bona fide nor'easter, a low-pressure system crawling up the Atlantic coast and getting a burst of energy from the departing cyclone."

New Haven Register: "But the still-powerful cyclone will come close enough to boost an incoming storm into a brawny nor’easter ..."

Note the "lively" writing. The "brawny" storm is "crawling up the Atlantic." (The New London Day, observing the same storm, says it is "pinballing" up the coast.) The storm is not just powerful but "still-powerful" and it also happens to be "bona fide."

Which brings us to "nor'easter." When a reporter writes that word in a newspaper story -- and I did, more than once -- he doesn't even care if it's the right word. All he cares about is getting through deadline so he can move on to something that's not about the weather. It's a defense mechanism. Newspapers all over the country are run by middle-management editors like Alfalfa (not to mention petty tyrants like Mr. Fake Collegiality).

The silly language of the weather story is a reporter's way of dealing with them.

(November 4 update: Mr. Comee died on October 14, 2005.


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