OPINION | Who put the D where the TH belongs?


It’s good to see new and established Northeasters and Northeaster wannabes grappling with the decades-old issue: To Nordeast or not to Nordeast. In online posts we can direct you to at nenorthnews.com, Event #5614, folks debate whether “Nordeast” is a charming, proud reference to the Eastern European (and some even say Scandinavian) heritage of many of this area’s residents; or a slap in their faces, making fun of the fact that thousands of late 19th and early 20th Century Eastern European immigrants never learned how to speak the “th” sound (because it does not occur in their native language), which is ever so popular in the new language they were learning to speak: English.

For the record, your publishers, having never walked in the immigrants’ shoes, are firmly in the “Northeast” camp. Having asked many outsiders (as we were 28 years ago) why Northeast was commonly called Nordeast, and being told several variations on the theme, “It just is,” we knew there was more to the story and it didn’t take us long to find it once we started working here.

It’s important to note that immigrants and non-immigrants alike called (and call) the area Nordeast with only pride and affection intended in the reference. It’s also important to note that many in the region’s early power elite, and their followers through the decades, have used the term as a put-down; as a way of implying that the people in this area are not so smart (after all, they can’t even pronounce the name of their own neighborhood) and therefore not worthy of consideration when some key policies (such as placement of major amenities and polluting industries) formed and grew. (Hint: They don’t call it Lake of de Isles, do they? Few if any people who did not pronounce the “th” sound were involved when that region was developed.)

The fact that so many consider the term Nordeast innocent, and are themselves offended by the idea that it could have any negative connotation, is not evidence of the term’s innocence, but of the pervasiveness of the decades-old put-down. Kind-hearted people say it without the slightest knowledge of how it started, where it came from or what it means. It approaches put-down perfection.

Perhaps a hypothetical situation based on a better-known speech-pattern difference would be helpful. Several North American cities have areas where Chinese immigrants have settled, and the areas became known as “Chinatown.” What would you think of a marketing campaign called “I RUV Chinatown?” You might think it was making fun of the residents’ speech patterns.

The roots of many non-immigrants’ use of the term Nordeast are equally insensitive. If you began using the term Nordeast without knowing the history—perhaps because someone you know and love, who couldn’t possibly have a malicious bone in his/her body, taught it to you—well, we urge you to look at the history and see if you don’t come to a different conclusion based on the new information. And, if Nordeast you still must, we won’t call you names or even look down our noses at you. However, we hope you’ll be prepared to tell the story of where the term Nordeast came from and how it was used, and to then say, “but it’s all right to call it that now.” And, quietly, we’ll hope that each quizzical look you receive will lead you toward our point of view.

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