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How the Cardinal Directions Got Their Names

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While we were wading through the origins of the names of the U.S. states last fall, reader Brit asked me where the North in North Carolina and North Dakota came from. We’re happy to oblige.


North
“North” comes from the Proto-Indo-European language (the hypothetical, reconstructed ancestor language of the Indo-European languages) base ner-, (“left”), as north is to the left when you face the rising sun.


“North American,” as a noun, was first used by Ben Franklin in 1766. “North Star” comes from the Middle English norþe sterre.


South
From the Old English suð (“southward, in the south”). Suð came from the Proto-Germanic sunthaz, which may have been based on sunnon (“sun”) in reference to sunnier, warmer southern regions.

“South Sea” meant the Mediterranean until the 1520s, when the plural form came to refer to the South Pacific Ocean.

East

From Old English, in turn from the Proto-Germanic aus-to- or austra- (“east, toward the sunrise”), which may come from either the Proto-Indo-European aus- (“to shine”) or hausos, the reconstructed name of a theoretical Proto-Indo-European goddess associated with the dawn. Both origins tie to the fact that east is the direction from which dawn breaks.

The first reference to the “East End” of London is from 1846 and the “East Side” of Manhattan from 1882. The “East Indies” were so called beginning in the 1590s to distinguish them from the West Indies.

West
From Old English, in turn from the Proto-Germanic wes-t-, in turn from the from Proto-Indo-European wes-. The PIE base might be an enlarged form of we- (“to go down”), as west is the direction in which the sun sets.

“West” used in a geopolitical sense to separate western Europe and the U.S. from the Middle East/the Orient/the Soviet bloc originated in 1918, when it was used to separate Britain and France from Germany and Austria-Hungary during World War One.

Why do we call them the cardinal directions, anyway?
"Cardinal" comes from the early 14th century and was derived from the Latin cardinalis ("principal, chief, essential").

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Big Questions
What's the Difference Between Vanilla and French Vanilla Ice Cream?
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While you’re browsing the ice cream aisle, you may find yourself wondering, “What’s so French about French vanilla?” The name may sound a little fancier than just plain ol’ “vanilla,” but it has nothing to do with the origin of the vanilla itself. (Vanilla is a tropical plant that grows near the equator.)

The difference comes down to eggs, as The Kitchn explains. You may have already noticed that French vanilla ice cream tends to have a slightly yellow coloring, while plain vanilla ice cream is more white. That’s because the base of French vanilla ice cream has egg yolks added to it.

The eggs give French vanilla ice cream both a smoother consistency and that subtle yellow color. The taste is a little richer and a little more complex than a regular vanilla, which is made with just milk and cream and is sometimes called “Philadelphia-style vanilla” ice cream.

In an interview with NPR’s All Things Considered in 2010—when Baskin-Robbins decided to eliminate French Vanilla from its ice cream lineup—ice cream industry consultant Bruce Tharp noted that French vanilla ice cream may date back to at least colonial times, when Thomas Jefferson and George Washington both used ice cream recipes that included egg yolks.

Jefferson likely acquired his taste for ice cream during the time he spent in France, and served it to his White House guests several times. His family’s ice cream recipe—which calls for six egg yolks per quart of cream—seems to have originated with his French butler.

But everyone already knew to trust the French with their dairy products, right?

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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science
Belly Flop Physics 101: The Science Behind the Sting
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Belly flops are the least-dignified—yet most painful—way of making a serious splash at the pool. Rarely do they result in serious physical injury, but if you’re wondering why an elegant swan dive feels better for your body than falling stomach-first into the water, you can learn the laws of physics that turn your soft torso a tender pink by watching the SciShow’s video below.

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