Q: We say “northeast” and “southwest” in giving directions, not “eastnorth” or “westsouth.” Why do we mention the up or down word first and the left or right word second?
A: Actually people did at one time, mainly in the days before the compass, use such terms as “eastnorth” and “westsouth.”
In fact, Old English versions of “eastnorth” and “westsouth” coexisted with early versions of “northeast” and “southwest,” though the pairs apparently had different meanings.
But let’s begin with the 16 main compass points in the modern directional system.
In English, the four principal compass points are north, south, east, and west. The four intermediate points are “northeast,” “southeast,” “southwest,” and “northwest.”
Each of those eight divisions is further divided—“north-northeast,” “east-northeast,” and so on—and in some kinds of navigation the divisions are even smaller.
But it’s the intermediate directions we’re concerned with here—“northeast,” “southwest,” etc. In these compound words, “north” and “south” always come first, while “east” and “west” are subsidiary.
Why is this? There are several reasons.
First of all, speakers of Old English probably didn’t make a conscious decision in favor of using “northeast” instead of “eastnorth” and so on. They were likely influenced by similar compound words in other old Germanic languages.
“Northeast,” which we’ll use as our example, is northostan in Old Saxon, northost in Old Dutch, northastera in Old Frisian, and nordostan in Old High German. It’s noordoost in modern Dutch; noroaustur in Icelandic; and nordost in German, Norwegian, Swedish and Danish.
And in the Romance languages, it’s northest in Old French; nordest in modern French and Italian; and nordeste in Spanish and Portuguese.
But there’s a more elemental reason why “north” and “south” now come first in such compounds, while “east” and “west” come second.
North has always had a special significance in navigation. In the days before compasses, when mariners relied on the stars to get their bearings, they used the North Star (Polaris) as a reference.
More to the point (if you’ll pardon the expression), the needle of a compass points to the magnetic north, with the other directions derived from that bearing.
And maps commonly include a legend or device pointing to the geographic north; the other directions are assumed from that.
Those are reasons enough for north and south (the “up” and “down” directions, as you call them) to take precedence over east and west (the “right” and “left.”) But there’s one more.
The modern English system of directional points—with four principal directions bisected by “northeast,” “southeast,” “southwest,” and “northwest”—was known to be in use by the early 12th century, which is about when Europeans began using compasses.
This system, says the OED, “superseded an older twelve-point system (with its origin in the twelve winds of antiquity) in which each quadrant was subdivided by two intermediate points at 30° intervals.”
Here again, the OED says, the subdivisions were “denominated by compounds: north-east, east-north; east-south, south-east; south-west, west-south; west-north, north-west.”
Do you find this confusing? The ancient mariners probably did too. As the OED comments, “it is unclear with what degree of exactitude these terms were applied, as the surviving texts evince much confusion.”
Obviously, it was much clearer to divide each quadrant by only one intermediate point (“northeast,” for instance), and then to put one further subdivision on each side of that one (creating “north-northeast” and “east-northeast”).
As we’ve always said, the point of using good, clear English is to communicate. And when words are designed to tell you where you are, they shouldn’t be confusing.
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