More than one land of the rising sun

How did our words for east, west, north, and south come to refer to places and not just direction?

J. David Ake/AP
A photographer is silhouetted in the reflecting pool as he captures the sunrise behind the Washington Monument early in the morning.

Explorations here last week of how “the Levant” has made a comeback in American diplomatic parlance have prompted further researches into some cardinal points.

Let’s start with the rising of the sun. 

It’s so fundamental as a way to mark both time and space that orientation, from Latin-derived words meaning “to face east,” has come to mean “getting one’s bearings,” metaphorically and otherwise. 

It gives rise to one of my favorite journalistic oxymorons, “Western oriented.” A recent CNN commentary, for instance, mentioned “Western-oriented Russians”: They get their bearings, presumably, by facing west, not east. 

A blog at Dictionary.com notes, “The word ‘east’ is derived from the Sanskrit word ‘usas’ meaning ‘dawn’ or ‘morning.’... Conversely, the word ‘west’ comes from the word for ‘evening’ from the Sanskrit word ‘avah’ meaning ‘to go down.’ ” 

In biblical language, it’s not always clear whether references to the “rising of the sun” and the going down thereof are meant to indicate time of day or points of the compass. 

Often it’s both. For instance, a verse from the book of Isaiah (45:6) seems to split the difference, in the King James Version anyway: “That they may know from the rising of the sun, and from the west, that there is none beside me.”

The above-mentioned Dictionary.com piece, on how use of the terms “Near East,” “Middle East,” and “Far East” has evolved, also notes that these directional terms are “all relational”; that is, they “dictate the space” around the speaker. “Our words for geography reveal where we are.”

Exactly; that’s the problem, some say. The blog Grammarist, commenting on the three “Easts,” observes, “All three terms are vague, and their Eurocentrism makes them easy to criticize. Dropping them from the language would be a no-brainer if they weren’t so widely used.”

Good luck with that. Our sense of direction has congealed, you might say.

I spent my childhood in California, and as I began to grasp larger concepts of civilization, I realized that I was part of the “West,” broadly speaking, even though it lay largely to the east of me. For example, Mom and Dad would go to hear Tchaikovsky – “Western” music, surely – at the Hollywood Bowl.

But on second thought, does Tchaikovsky qualify as “Western”? As part of a musical tradition that extended at least as far east as the Urals, where he was born, and as far west as Los Angeles, yes. But Russia, sprawling to the Pacific, somehow isn’t seen as part of the global “East.”

Dictionary.com makes a similar point: “Oddly, in linguistic terms, the world seems to stop just east of Japan. Even in China, they refer to the United States as the ‘West.’ Though, technically, North America is ‘east’ of China, it is considered part of the cultural West.”

Would it make a difference if Asians started referring to the cities of the US East Coast as “the Far East”?

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