On my wall I have a large-scale reproduction of a newspaper column written 15 years ago by the late Ed Myers, who was a regular contributor to Working Waterfront for more than a decade. Ed wrote about many things – the tricky business of aquaculture, the activities of a “wharfinger” (he was one), the connections between lunar cycles and commercial clamming, the insidious ties that bind home gardeners to gigantic agribusiness corporations-often couching his arguments in the elegant language of mathematics. His columns are unforgettable and were an important element of this newspaper’s early development and success.

My blown-up version of Ed’s August 1994 effort comes from an exhibit we put up at the Island Institute a few years ago. The exhibit highlighted what we considered some of our better publishing efforts, including Working Waterfront and Ed’s columns published there.

This one’s headlined “To the Media: A ‘No-theast’ Kick in the Pants.”  The kick was well deserved, Ed wrote, because newspapers and particularly TV weatherpersons continued to refer to those storms that frequent our coast at certain times of year as “nor’easters.”

As Ed put it with uncharacteristic but intentionally bad grammar, just to get our attention: “There ain’t no such word.”

He then quoted Ben Carrick of Isle au Haut, a character in The World of Carrick’s Cove by G.W. Brace (“a novelist with perfect pitch on nautical phrasing as well as scrupulous regard for accuracy”), to the effect that “no seaman ever says ‘noreaster’ … we had to say the compass points a good deal in the old days so as there’d be no chance of a mistake, and the word had to be spoken ‘no-theast.’ Anyone who tried to say ‘noreast’ or anything but ‘no-theast’ would likely get a kick in the pants.” Yet the mistake persists to this day: many TV weather prognosticators and newspaper headline writers use “nor’east” or “nor’easter” to describe wind direction and those three-day weather events that have brought us so much rain and grief this summer.

While I agree with Myers, Brace and Carrick that there’s good reason to use language carefully, I’m also wondering if the distinction between “nor’east” and “no-theast” is as important as it once was.  To a purist, or to anyone who cares enough about language to know the difference between “affect” and “effect,” “capitol” and “capital,” “that” and “which”-these distinctions will always be important. Likewise, anyone with an ear for language – particularly why some words had to be used correctly to avoid confusion-needs to know which compass direction is being referred to. “Nor’east” sounds too much like “nor’west” for comfort, or least it did when hearing these directions correctly might have meant life or death; but are such distinctions as critical today?

The answer is likely to be no, if we’re talking about safety at the helm of a ship. It’s difficult to conceive of a situation today where a helmsman, steering by degrees or simply watching an autopilot do its job, or a navigator depending on GPS to reach a particular point, will confuse one old-fashioned compass point with another. We don’t “box the compass” the way we used to, steering “north by northeast” or “east by southeast” the way sailors once did. The system we use today is simply different. As with many things, technology has altered the imperative.

Nevertheless, Ed Myers made a point that will always be important. Saying “nor’east” marks the speaker as someone who’s unfamiliar with the language of people who work on the sea, or at least with why this particular branch of our language has evolved as it has.

When I hear “nor’east” or read about a “nor’easter” I’m conditioned to suspect that the speaker or writer doesn’t know what he or she’s talking about. Language says who we are, purists or otherwise, and if a forecaster tells me a certain type of storm is coming my way, or that these storms annually give us more trouble than hurricanes (they do, in case you’re wondering), and pronounces the offending pattern a “nor’easter” -well, I’ll question the messenger’s qualifications. Call it a prejudice if you like, but that’s mine and I’m sticking with it.

David D. Platt is former editor of Working Waterfront.