Q: In regard to “the four corners of the earth,” how did our globe come to have four corners?
A: The expression “four corners of the earth” appeared in Anglo-Saxon times as “feowerum [four] foldan [of the earth] sceatum [corners]” and in Old English it meant the remotest areas of the world.
As the Oxford English Dictionary explains, “the four corners, quarters, etc. (of the earth, heavens or world)” refers to “the remotest parts.” The dictionary defines the noun “corner” in such expressions as “an extremity or end of the earth; a region, quarter; a direction or quarter from which the wind blows.”
The OED doesn’t speculate on how “four corners” came to be used in this sense, but it notes that “the four corners (of a document)” refers to “the limits or scope of its contents,” while “within the four seas” has meant “within the boundaries of Great Britain,” and “of all four sides” is another way of saying “entirely, thoroughly.”
It’s possible that “four” here may have originated as a reference to the cardinal directions (north, south, east, and west) or to the four bodies of water surrounding Britain: the English Channel, the North Sea, the Irish Sea, and the Atlantic Ocean.
Interestingly, the earliest Oxford citation for the word “four” uses it in the Old English version of “four corners of the earth.” The expression comes up in a description of the Last Judgment in Crist III, an anonymous Old English religious poem that the dictionary dates at 878:
“Þonne from feowerum foldan sceatum, þam ytemestum eorþan rices, englas æbeorhte on efen blawað byman on brehtme” (“Then from the four corners of the earth, from the utmost of the earthly realm, angels all-bright shall blow trumpets together with one voice”).
The earliest Oxford citation that resembles the modern version of the expression is from Myles Coverdale’s 1535 late Middle English translation of the Bible, the first complete translation of the Old and New Testaments in English. Here’s the Old Testament passage cited:
“And he shal set vp a toke [send a token or sign] amonge the Gentiles, and gather together ye dispersed of Israel, yee and the outcastes of Iuda from the foure corners of ye worlde” (Isaiah, 11:12).
Coverdale also uses the expression in translating a New Testament passage: “And after that sawe I foure angels stode on ye foure corners of the earth, holdinge ye foure wyndes of ye earth, yt ye wyndes shulde not blowe on ye earth, nether on ye see, nether on eny tree” (Revelation 7:1).
By the way, the adjective “four” is missing from the earliest known Hebrew version of the Old Testament passage mentioned earlier. The website of the Jewish Museum in Jerusalem has an English translation of the passage from the Great Isaiah Scroll, a Dead Sea Scroll dated at roughly 350 to 100 BC:
“He will raise a signal for the nations and assemble the banished of Israel and gather the dispersed of Judah from the corners of the earth.” (The translators, Peter W. Flint and Eugene Ulrich, render the Hebrew כנפות הארץ as “corners of the earth.” You can examine the scroll and the English translation on the website.)
The word כנפות appears in various passages of the Hebrew Bible and has been translated as corners, wings, edges, borders, ends, extremities, and so on. Some scholars have translated the phrase in Isaiah as “ends of the earth,” an interpetation that makes sense to us.