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Massachusetts is being hammered by its first nor’easter of 2021, and the storm has knocked out power to hundreds of thousands of customers.

So what exactly classifies as a nor’easter?

By definition, it’s a storm made up of winds from the northeast, usually accompanied by heavy rain or snow and coastal flooding.

National Weather Service meteorologist Lenore Correia said nor’easters are based on location, rather than severity of the storm.

“It’s just another low-pressure storm, but what makes it a nor’easter is where it positions itself,” Correia said. “It comes up from the southwest, and the circulation around the low-pressure center is counterclockwise, so the winds blow from the northeast.”


During the winter, cold arctic air from the polar jet stream is pushed south across Canada and the United States, then east toward the Atlantic Ocean, where it meets warm air from the Gulf of Mexico and the ocean, she said.

The storms thrive on these converging air masses, and are often more severe in the winter, when there’s a greater difference in temperature, according to the National Weather Service. They float north as they get stronger and generally hit Washington, D.C., Philadelphia, New York, and Boston the hardest.

As for the storm’s famous name, Correia said she has no sense of its origin.

“I’m assuming it’s because of the Boston accent,” she said.

According to Merriam-Webster editors, the original “northeaster” term seems to have first appeared in the middle of the 18th century. Their earliest records are from newspapers on the East Coast, including a 1753 article in the Pennsylvania Gazette, said Ammon Shea, a Merriam-Webster editor.

The abbreviated form first appeared in the early 19th century in a London magazine as “Nor’ Easter,” Shea said.

“It is not entirely certain that this represents the term as we use it today, or if it is simply a dialectal rendering,” Shea said.


By the 1830s, “nor’easter” appeared in published writing, including in an 1836 adaptation of “Robinson Crusoe.”

Despite its long history, the term still irritates some.

Mark Liberman, a linguistics professor at the University of Pennsylvania, calls it a “literary affectation,” and has written about the “fakeness of the term.”

“Traditional Yankee speakers in New England never elided the ‘th’, but at some point in the late 20th century, American journalists began using ‘nor’easter’ as a fake regionalism,” Liberman said.

Nonetheless, it seems the word is here to stay — as well as the storms that come with it.

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly described the wind direction during a nor’easter.

Elise Takahama can be reached at elise.takahama@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @elisetakahama.