Monday, November 12, 2012

Septentrion

One of the most enjoyable and unintentional things about blogging is all the interesting new knowledge I happen across as a result of meeting blog friends (there should be a more appropriate word for this) and exchanging knowledge.  Today, I would like to highlight a wonderful and unintentional find I made while perusing Rob from Amersfoort's delightful website, Robs Webstek.




Rob had written about an early North American map (shown below) by Dutch cartographer, Cornelius van Wytfliet.



Like Rob, I enjoy maps.  I love looking at every little detail and I enjoyed this one too.  One detail that caught my eye this time however, was the compass rose.  Van Wytfliet had labeled the map in the Latin language including the cardinal points:  Oriens, Occidens, Septentrio, and Meridies.  Most people are familiar with the English words Oriental and Occidental as somewhat archaic terms for Eastern and Western, but I became curious if these other Latin words had spawned equivalent terms for Northern and Southern.  As a matter of fact, the answer is yes, although the terms really never caught on.

It would seem as though all the terms are archaic, but some more so than others.  Orient is used most frequently and some people will still talk about the Orient in reference to China, but the term is dying out.  Most likely this is due to the slightly derisive connotation of using the term Oriental to describe people from East Asia.  Curiously enough, to orient a map comes from the time of the Middle Ages when most maps put east at the top of the map, so to orient a map would be to arrange it towards the east.

Pietro Visconte's map of the world from 1321

The term Occident is used significantly less frequently to describe the Western World.  Oftentimes this would be in reference to Europe instead of Asia.  Although this is a rarely heard term, it still comes up from time to time.  For example, President Obama attended Occidental College in Los Angeles.

Until I had seen Van Wyfliet's map, I had only been familiar with Orient and Occident and I hadn't put much thought into why there were no comparable terms for Northern and Southern lands.  Checking the dictionary, I did see that there is a term for Northern lands, it's Septentrion.  What a wonderful word!

You might have noticed the Latin sept- prefix.  Septem is Latin for the number seven, just like September.  I can already hear some of you saying, "But September is the ninth month, not the seventh!"  Well, actually in the original Roman calendar September was the seventh month, followed by the rest of the numbered months up to the tenth month, December (e.g., septem, seven; octo, eight; novem, nine; decem, ten).  July and August were originally Quintilis and Sextilis (fifth and sixth respectively) until they were changed to honor Julius Caesar (July) and Augustus Caesar (August).  The Romans later added Ianuarius and Februarius to account for the previously unaccounted winter time period.


So how is something to do with seven related to the north?  Septentrion is a combination of the Latin septem (seven) and trion (plow oxen).  The group of stars that most of us recognize as the Big Dipper is a collection of seven stars in the northern sky.  These stars are today part of the Ursa Major constellation and the ladle of the dipper forms the bears tail.  However, in ancient times, this dipper was sometimes depicted as an ox plough.


The accompanying Latin term for things southern, "meridional," never really caught on and appears to have been eclipsed by its association with the sun's meridian or noontime.  Although I suppose for Europeans the sun was always a tad southernly.

So, thank you to Rob from Amersfoort!  But now that I'm thinking about words, shouldn't that be Rob van Amersfoort or Rob uit Amersfoort?  Either way, I always appreciate a good think.


11 comments:

Judi said...

My brain is reeling. Deep stuff. Love the Big Dipper connection to north.

al_luz812 said...

Septentrion......ahh enlightening.

The terms occidental and oriental are still commonly used in my country. Islands which are divided into western and eastern provinces are named after tehese archaic terms.

Negros occidental and Negros oriental; Occidental Mindoro and Oriental Mindoro.

Nate Maas said...

Al, thanks for commenting. I was unaware that they had those classifications in the Philippines - very interesting. Of course the general description of the islands to the southeast, Melanesia, also means black islands.

Rob From Amersfoort said...

You're welcome! In my little quest to make the city of Amersfoort a bit more known worldwide I decided to use 'from' instead of 'van' or ' uit' :-). Nice post, I admit I didn't take a close look at the compass rose. We always refer to the Orient as the 'far east', and to Arabia and surroundings as the 'middle east'. Which may be a bit strange when you live in California and the far east is not that far away compared to the 'middle east'. And then I won't even mention the West-Indies and and East-Indies, it's confusing.

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