“From the north so dear to southern climes” is an awkward prose rendition of a line occurring in a lyric titled “Clouds” by the Russian poet Mikhail Lermontov. In 1840 he was exiled to the Caucasus, where Russia tried to “pacify” the Chechens (!). Lermontov improvised “Clouds” at a small farewell party in St. Petersburg, and I have chosen it to introduce the discussion of the words north and south (check out the discussion of east and west here). The juxtaposition of the hands will become clear later.
Since, while traveling, our distant ancestors oriented themselves by the sun, they must have associated the east with what they saw before them. Consequently, the north was to their left and the south to their right. The idea springs to mind that north and south originally meant “left” and “right” respectively. And so they did sometimes and somewhere, but the course of true etymology never runs smooth. To begin with, in the past only travelers and nomads needed the names of the cardinal points (including such as SE and NW). A small scale community could and still can do very well without them. The Minneapolis campus of the University of Minnesota is cut into two by the Mississippi, so that we, like some other hyperactive communities, have the East Bank and the West Bank. Both names occur in conversation many times every day. But we hardly need them, for “across the river” is an easier way to describe our peregrinations than specifying the position of this or that building in relation to the North Pole. When I am advised to drive two blocks east and then turn, I often feel confused and try to understand whether I have been sent two blocks left or right. And I am not an exception. “Up the hill,” “toward the quarry,” “cater-corner (or kiddy-corner) from the church” are phrases one would naturally use in directing a stranger to a store or a post office. Here is a typical description: “The known world was the world in which they lived—the South Coast of the Admiralty Islands, each small creek mouth and bay accurately known. When people spoke, they spoke of going either up—toward the open sea—or going down—toward the nearby shore—or going along—parallel to the shore.” The generic terms east, west, north, and south need not have been coined at the dawn of civilization. Even the oppositions east : west and north : south are not always as clear-cut as one can expect. In some places, the opposite of south is east, whereas south may refer to the southwest and simply west. When more than a thousand years ago Iceland was colonized, the terms of direction that fit the Norwegian terrain were brought to the new home, where they lost their meaning and became conventional phrases, idioms intelligible only to the natives.
Both south and north, which have cognates in other Germanic languages, are words of debatable etymology. Subjects like “What names do speakers of different languages have for the cardinal points?” are the domain of anthropological linguists. Here is a hint of what has been collected from nearly a hundred languages. The north is the place where there is no sun, where it grows dark, where the pole star is seen, where a certain wind blows, where it is cold; it is the region of midnight. In contrast, south is where the sun turns, where there is daylight, and so forth. In some regions, the north is the home of a cold wind and winter, in others of monsoons and heat. It is sometimes to one’s left and sometimes to one’s right. A few patterns are discernible, but a single rule does not exist. Yet, confirming the initial hypothesis, Engl. north may owe its existence to the concept “left,” though it also appears to be a cognate of some words meaning “from under” (such nouns often trace back to adverbs: first, “from a certain direction,” then the name of that direction), “dive down” (so in Lithuanian), and “hell.” The origin of south is less clear. At one time, south rhymed with words like Modern Engl. youth, truth, forsooth and the vowel was followed by n. It had the form sunth- (the hyphen designates the ending that does not interest us at the moment). Therefore, it is possible to compare it with sun, Greek notos “south, southerly wind” (properly, “wind bringing rain”), and sund “bay” (Engl. sound; those who coined sunth- may have lived north of some sea—an unverifiable hypothesis). The name of one of the Germanic gods was Nerthuz (this is a reconstructed form; the Roman historian Tacitus mentioned only a female divinity, the goddess Nerthus). The Scandinavians knew him as one of the masters of the sea. The meaning “dive,” mentioned above, fits the character of such a god perfectly. If we can assume that south and north formed a correlation in the language of the earliest Germanic-speakers, and if north meant “left,” then south did perhaps mean “right.” Left, when applied to the hand, often becomes a synonym of “weak.” Following this lead, the German scholar Heinrich Schröeder suggested that sunth- is a cognate of a Germanic word for “strong.” He cited, among others, Old Engl. on tha suth-healfe (modernized spelling) “on the right-hand side.” His etymology has found no support, but I find it at least as convincing as the one that has been tentatively accepted by our best dictionaries (namely, “south” form “sun”).
As often in etymological studies, the question remains open. Having sifted through all the existing suggestions (and I have mentioned only some of them), I tend to think that east is “dawn” (this is, of course, what everybody believes); west, the place where the sun has its “place of residence”; north, “the left (weak) side,” and south “the right (strong) side.”
And now from antiquity to North America. Southpaw means “left-handed person.” This is not a trace of some ancient superstition or a relic of an obliterated pagan religion. The OED found an 1848 example of southpaw but offered a puzzling etymology: “south + paw,” as though people also have a northpaw or a westpaw and have no trouble distinguishing between them. The word goes back to baseball slang and was explained long ago. Thus, The New Oxford American Dictionary (2005) says: “…(denoting the left hand or a punch with the left hand): the usage in baseball is perhaps from the orientation of early baseball fields to the same points of the compass, such that the pitcher’s left arm was on the ‘south’ side of his body.” How pleasant for a change to have something that does not need the qualifying adjective Germanic or Indo-European! The ancient Indo-Europeans had wonderful chariots and conquered half of the world, but they did not play baseball.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org; he’ll do his best to avoid responding with “origin unknown.”