North is Left and West is Down: Getting Lost in the Origins of Cardinal Directions

Cardinal directions are legend-----ary!  (Well, at least they are found on the legends of most maps.) North, South, East and West.  But why is north called north? or south called south? What do those words mean and where do they come from?

First and Foremost
North, South, East, and West are English words, derived from Germanic, which was itself derived from Proto-Indo-European.  (Many English words are.) These Germanic words eventually replaced their Greek-Latin counterparts in most of Western Europe.

North originates from ner, which means left.  This probably seems odd.  After all, maps always have West on the left.  The originators of these terms did not have the benefit of cheap, printed maps. They looked to the sky - to the sun.  They looked east.  North would have been to the left of the sunrise.

The Greek-Latin version of North, boreas, is still used in some naming.  (Most famously in Aurora Borealis, which means northern lights)  The Greek god Boreas was the god of the north wind.

South originates from sunthaz or sunnon.  Basically these words mean sun, but they don't refer to the direction of the sun in the sky.  They instead refer to the pleasant, sunny areas of Southern Europe. 

The Greek-Latin for South is australis; the namesake of Australia - But wait! It's about to get complicated...

East originates from austra; which means facing the sunrise/sunshine.  Simple enough, but why does the Proto-Indo-European East/austra, sound so much like the Latin South/australis?  The simplest theory holds the Romans as just being wrong about the orientation of the Italian peninsula.  

Newer Germanic transitioned austra into Eastre, which is also the name of a goddess associated with spring.  (To find out more about Eastre (Easter), click here)

So what did the Romans use for East?  They used Orient.  Orient's association with Eastern lands explains why Asia was so often called "The Orient".  Because Europeans had an insatiable desire for Asian goods and because merchants often directed their journeys East, orient became synonymous with "getting ones bearings"

West comes from wes, meaning to go down (as in the sun setting).

The Greek-Latin origin of West is occidentalis, which can simply mean west or where the sun sets/falls.

Want to learn more about cardinal directions in other languages? Compass Museum has you covered.
If you want a fun way to teach the Cardinal Directions to your children,  Adam Crossley has a song for you.

Thanks for reading!

Top image downloaded from Wikimedia:By Brosen (Own work) [GFDL (, CC-BY-SA-3.0 ( or CC BY 2.5 (], via Wikimedia Commons 


  1. Interesting and very well written. You must have had an AWESOME English teacher in high school. "wink" "wink"

  2. I spent 30 mins researching so much after opening this page! Thank you!