All over the world when people decide to name cardinal points, they look at the sky. Terms used for orientation should therefore be immediately transparent: we expect them to mean “toward sunrise,” “toward sunset,” “related to a certain constellation,” “in the direction of a certain wind,” and so forth. And indeed, Latin oriens “east” is akin to oriri “to rise,” while occidens “west” is a cognate of occidere “to fall down.” Speakers of Latin did not need an etymologist to interpret those words (such specialists existed even then, for example, Varro, the most famous of them all): sunrise and sunset tell their own story. But of the English words—east, west, north, and south—only the first reveals its past to the initiated. The other three are so opaque that after centuries of guessing their origin remains a matter of dispute.
Engl. east is related to Latin aurora “dawn.” Those who have not studied historical linguistics always resent such statements: why should east and aurora be congeners if they don’t share a single sound? There was a time (and a beautiful time it was) when the spelling of English words reflected their pronunciation. At that golden age, about a thousand years ago, east was easte and ea in it sounded approximately like the modern word air (without r, of course). The word’s root was eas-. In Latin, as well as in the Germanic languages, s, when voicing turned it into z, became r, and we witness the results of that change in Venus ~ venereal, opus ~ opera (opera is the plural of opus), and was ~ were; in other cases, the alternation is harder to recognize (so raise ~ rear). As is well known, the Greek letter corresponding to r is called rho; hence rhotacism, the name of the process that transforms any consonant, including z, into r. Once we take rhotacism into account, we will understand how s in Engl. eas-t and in Greek Eos (the name of the goddess if dawn) corresponds to r in aur-ora. The vowels ea and au are also a perfect match, because Old English ea developed from au (one can see it even by comparing English and Icelandic: Engl. east ~ Old Icelandic austr “toward the east”). Eas-t is thus related to Latin aur-ora, which in turn is related to oriri “rise.” We conclude that east originally meant “(sun)rise,” something we have expected all along. The Greek place name Anatolia produces a sweet tremor in me every time I see or write, let alone pronounce, it. Anatolia is derived from Greek anatole (stress is on the last vowel, which is long) “sunrise” and “east.”
The Venerable Bede (673?-735), a church historian of Anglo-Saxon England, mentioned the otherwise unknown goddess of dawn called Eostre (the Northumbrian variant of Eastre) and derived Old English eastre (mainly used in the plural: eastron) “Easter; Passover; spring” from it. Obviously, after the conversion to Christianity the name of some pagan festival began to be used for the resurrection of Jesus. The same happened to Yule: in Scandinavia, its cognate serves as the only word for “Christmas.” Although no traces of Eostre’s cult or mythology have come down to us, such a goddess must have existed. The names of divinities are regular words elevated to the religious sphere. For example, Old Icelandic eir and syn meant “peace” and “denial” respectively; as a result, the Scandinavians knew the goddesses Eir, the best of physicians, and Syn, a guardian of the doors against unwelcome visitors. Curiously, Snorri Sturluson, an extremely knowledgeable 13th-century Icelandic author, reversed the process in his mind and believed that the names of the goddesses had given rise to common names. Such linguistic naiveté in so sophisticated a man is hard to believe. Other than that, a goddess or a woman called Dawn is commonplace; consider Eos. Nor are we surprised today when we meet women whose names are Melody, April, May, June, and even January (only we do not expect them to be great singers, look like the central figure in Boticelli’s “Primavera,” and so forth). Eastre is east- with a suffix added to it. That suffix had various functions.
West, we hope, should mean “sunset” or something similar, and, predictably, it has been compared with Latin vesper “(Evening) Star,” its Greek cognate hesperos, and Russian vecher “evening.” But this comparison is not secure, for the origin of vesper and its kin poses problems. The division may be ve-sper rather not ves-per, and, according to an inviolable rule of etymology, one obscure word should never be cited to explain another equally obscure word, for a meeting of two dark spots does not produce light. Other clues appear to be more reliable. An especially interesting example is Dutch gewest. It means “region,” and we know why: this noun has the same root as the past tense of the English verb be (was), Old High German wesan “to be,” Gothic wisan “to be, remain,” and many other similar words. Gewest is then a place in which one resides, and the west emerges as the place where the sun rests after its journey across the sky. For millennia people believed that the sun moves in a vehicle over the earth and sinks into the sea before rising again in the morning. Attempts to connect west with the root of the English word ooze (from wos), and thereby with water or at least moisture, are also known, but they carry less conviction. The west is the sun’s home. It resides there as the Dutch reside in a gewest. East or west…
Anatoly Liberman is the author of Word Origins…And How We Know Them. His column on word origins, The Oxford Etymologist, appears here each Wednesday. Send your etymology question to email@example.com; he’ll do his best to avoid responding with “origin unknown.”