Is North West Up or Down?

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North West. These two simple, innocuous words have caused quite a media stir in the “Celebrity Baby Name” news category. It was Kim Kardashian and Kanye West who “put it on the map” when they gave this directional moniker to their newborn baby girl in June of 2013. When asked by Barbara Walters on The View, North West’s grandmother, Kris Kardashian, had this to say: “The way [Kim] explained it to me, north means highest power, and North is their highest point together. I thought that was really sweet." And I have to agree. That is sweet. Like “Sweet’n Low” sweet. 

 

However, I found myself pondering a reasonable question that follows such a claim: Is Kimye’s interpretation of their baby’s name accurate?  And my conclusion?  Symbolically, yes. Etymologically, probably not. In fact, from an etymological perspective, Kimye may have inadvertently given their innocent baby girl a double-dose of the “downers”. 

 

But let’s back up. What is Etymology exactly?  Quite simply, it’s the study of words, their origin, their history, and how their literal, practical and symbolic meanings evolve over time. Every word in the English language has its own fascinating story behind its likely origin and what idea or notion it initially meant to convey. The words “north” and “west” are no exception.  

 

The Proto-Indo-European (PIE) language is considered the first (“proto”) or ancestral language of all of the major European language groups such as Celtic, Germanic, Hellenic, Indo-Iranian, Italic and Slavic.  Because no written linguistic record was left by the Proto-Indo-European man (believed to have lived in prehistoric times during the Neolithic Era and older parts of the Bronze Age), the linguistic study of PIE is hypothetical – in essence, it’s a reconstruction of words that exist (or have existed) in all the major and minor branches of PIE to find a common, probable ancestral origin.  Anglo-Saxon (Olde English) developed into Middle English which ultimately expanded into what we speak today, Modern English (a minor language branch of Germanic). Here are the generally accepted PIE deconstructions for our Modern English words denoting direction: North, East, South and West. In short, everything centered on the rising sun (East). 

 

In ancient times, East was the focus; the direction one faced while worshipping the rising sun.  The Olde English word “Ä“asten” was most likely derived from the Proto-Germanic *austra- meaning “toward the sunrise” from the PIE root *aues- meaning “to shine, dawn”. [1] East was the highest power, or the highest point, from a directional perspective. It was while facing east where people of the ancient world  found their bearings.

 

North is believed to be derived from the Proto-Germanic *nurthra, from the Proto Indo-European (PIE) root *ner- meaning “below, left”. Supporting evidence left by two now-extinct Italic languages (long-ago replaced by Latin) leaves little doubt that the words “nertrak” and “nertru” meant “to the left” because that’s where North could be found when one was facing the rising sun (to the east). The PIE notion of “below, under” (*ner-) is supported by the Greek “nérteros” (nether, infernal) as well as the Sanskrit नरक (narakah) meaning “below the earth (hell)”. [2] 

 

It is thought that West comes from the PIE root *ue- meaning “to go down” in reference to the direction where the sun sets. [3] 

 

And finally, the Old Saxon “sÅ«thar” (South) is believed to have meant, quite literally, “from the region of the sun”, derived from the PIE root *suen-  meaning “sun”. [4]  In the Northern Hemisphere, the southerly direction enjoys most of the sun because of the way the earth rotates on its axis. This is why moss grows on the shady (northern) side of trees. 

 

Paradoxically, for most of written history, the default direction pointing upwards on maps was East, not North. Everything was “oriented” around the rising sun (apropos, “oriens” is the Latin word for “East”). Are you following us so far?  All such linguistic conclusions and hypotheses provide logical evidence as to the true PIE root meanings of the words North (left, below), West (to go down), South (sun) and East (dawn).  

 

The 1st century Greek astronomer/cartographer Ptolemy is often credited with placing North at the top of maps in reference to Polaris (the North Star), which is the brightest star in the Northern Hemisphere’s night sky (the sky is upwards). It wasn’t until the Late Middle Ages, when Ptolemy’s 1,500 year-old maps were reintroduced, that North’s positioning at the top became the defacto rule in Western map making. Let it be known, however, that this is not true for all maps, even today. North is still not universally accepted as the upwards direction.  

 

This is the history behind the reason most people (Westerners mainly) associate the directions North with “upwards” and South with “downwards” – because of their respective locations when facing a conventional map as well as their symbolic positions in terms of where we conceive them to be.  This is certainly a fair interpretation; symbolically Kimye chose the right name (I can’t argue with that).  

 

Etymologically, however, reality orients us in a different direction.  The name North West actually means “to the left, below, beneath, to go down’’.  North is merely a metaphor for up; not a real definition, just one that has evolved symbolically over time. I certainly don’t mean to be a “downer” on the subject; I’m only reporting the generally accepted facts from a word-origin point of view.  I’ll leave the smug irony of my findings to the reader. To quote writer George Saunders, “Irony is just honesty with the volume cranked up.” 

 

There is no doubt that “Kimye” was being sincere whilst explaining the name of their beautiful baby girl as their “highest point”. In fact, it’s both downright celebratory and thoroughly uplifting. The only direction North West really points is directly toward the hearts of her parents. And recently, that direction happened to be toward the Paris fashion shows about 5,600 miles northeast from North West’s bassinet in California. Maybe they should have named her “Leave Her Out” West.

 

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 [1, 2, 4] The Barnhart Dictionary of Etymology edited by Robert K. Barnhart (HW Wilson Co., 1988)

[3] The Origins of English Words: A Discursive Dictionary of Indo-European Roots edited by Joseph T. Shipley (The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1984)

 
 
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