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").

February 2, 2011 - 5:39am
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