I am writing this post on the Winter Solstice of 2009 (December 21st). Technically, I suppose, that means that last week was still autumn in the Northern Hemisphere. So yesterday was still Autumn in Quebec, Alaska, and New York. The huge snow storm that travelled up the east coast a few days before the solstice was thus dubbed by the NYT as “Winter Arrives Early.” One line is particularly strange: “On its way out the door, autumn gave the New York region a mighty foretaste of winter.” Odd that mid December in NYC would be referred to as rightfully autumn. Even if “autumn” is used to refer to the earth’s tilt relative to the sun from the equinox to the winter solstice, such usage represents a misuse of language, especially if it is used in this way outside of scientific circles. Indeed, “autumn” is mostly used in quite another meaning…one that does not include highs in the mid 30s and snow. That is clearly winter.
What I am getting at here is the oddity that is behind sticking to a technical usage that is so obviously ill-fitting. Prime facie, winter does not arrive early when it snows in New England in mid December. This might be the case in thirty years if global warming takes hold, but for now the statement evinces a rather strange form of journalism. At the very least, it implies that we should communicate as dictionaries even where it doesn’t make sense. Rather than resisting playing fast and loose with language, I would argue that it does just the opposite because it involves using terms against their central meaning.
What might the mentality be that so proffers such an obviously misfit even in technical terms? I believe the technical term should be changed because the term’s normal usage is at odds with it (at least where winter weather is significant). Is a person using a technical term in common usage even though the technical meaning doesn’t apply trying to be cute? Or an insistence on the technical meanings of terms even when they don’t fit? If so, there is presumption in it. I don’t view an ill-fitting technical meaning as trumping ordinary usages in ordinary discourse such as a newspaper. In any case, snow in mid December in the Northeast is not “winter arrives early.”
Source: http://www.nytimes.com/2009/12/20/us/20snow.html?_r=1&scp=2&sq=central%20park%20snow&st=cse ; http://cityroom.blogs.nytimes.com/2009/12/20/plenty-of-snow-but-hard-to-get-anywhere/?scp=1&sq=central%20park%20snow&st=cse