Orientating oneself

When visiting an unfamiliar place in order to find you way around it helps if you work out where you are in relation to particular landmarks and in which direction you’re facing. In order to use a map you need to know where north is so that you can hold the map the right way round. This process is known as getting ones bearings or orientating / orienting oneself. The verb orient(ate) means to to face or arrange things to face the east (orient) and comes, via French, from the Latin word orient (the eastern part of the world, the part of the sky in which the sun rises, the east, the rising sun, daybreak, dawn). These days we usually orientate ourselves by finding out where north is, so why do we use orient(ate)?

Recently I discovered, in On The Map: Why the world looks the way it does by Simon Garfield, that the use of orient(ate) comes from the the medieval practice of placing Jerusalem in the centre of maps, so lining them up involved making them face towards Jerusalem in the east.

The northern equivalent of orient is boreal (from the Greek βορέας – god of the north wind), so to ‘orientate’ oneself towards the north might be borealate – this word doesn’t exist, but the word borealize (to adopt northern manners or pronunciation) does.

There is also a verb occident, which means “to turn or direct towards the west; to place (a church) with the chancel at the western end.” The southern equivalent of orient is austral, and the verb to australize (to point southward) was once used in English, though no longer.

Source: Oxford English Dictionary

This entry was posted in English, Etymology, Language, Latin, Words and phrases.

9 Responses to Orientating oneself

  1. CuConnacht says:

    If Jerusalem was at the center of the map, how would you line the map up to “face Jerusalem”?

  2. Lev says:

    North in Arabic is “shmal”, which (I think) is related to “left”.
    In Hebrew, “Kedma”, which means “forward”, is used somewhere in the Psalms for “east”.
    So the practice of putting the east on top was not limited to people who lived west of Jerusalem.

  3. Simon says:

    CuConnacht – I think Jerusalem was in the centre of the map and at the top when you aligned the map with the east.

  4. David C says:

    If you are accosted by someone who claims that orientate is wrong and the proper verb is orient you could point out that while orient is a verbed noun, orientate has never been anything but a verb.

  5. Macsen says:

    I wonder, Simon is the Welsh for right, ‘dde’ is also essentially the same as south, ‘de’? Think I’ll tweet @geiriadur to ask them!

  6. CuConnacht says:

    Simon, sorry, but I don’t get it. I’ve seen these old maps. Jerusalem is at the center. Whichever way you turn the map, Jerusalem is at the center. Various other things will be at the top as you turn the map, but never Jerusalem, which will always be at the center.

  7. Matthew Roy says:

    Very interesting post!

    I never got very far in Scots Gaelic, but I seem to remember that the word for “north” also means “left” and “south” means “right – something to do with Druids (?) standing with arms outstretched facing the rising sun. Is that correct?

    Also, check out this post by Polyglossic (http://polyglossic.wordpress.com/2013/08/16/maps/) to see some very different ways of organizing and orienting ourselves globally. Anyone wanting to australize themselves should check out No. 40. :)

  8. Simon says:

    CuConnacht – I’m not sure about it either. I’ve looked at some old maps and if you align them towards the east with Jerusalem correctly orientated in the middle, then it’s the same as aligning them to the north, but using a different point of reference. Something like that anyway.

    Matthew – the Scottish Gaelic word for south, deas, does also mean right (side). I don’t know if this has anything to do with the druids. It is cognate with the old Welsh word for south, deheu, the Cornish dyghow, and the Middle Breton dehou, and possibly with the Latin dexter [source].

    According to MacBain: the Scottish Gaelic for north, tuath, comes from “Irish tuath, tuaith, Old Irish túath, left, north: *toutâ, *touto-s (adj.), left hand, left, “good”, Gothic þiuþ, good; cf. Greek @Geu@’w/numos, left hand, “good-omened”. Rhys (Manx Pray. @+2, 62) suggests that the root is su, turn (see iompaidh): *do-hu@-th (*to-su-), “turning to”; Welsh aswy or aseu, left hand, being also hence – *ad-sou-i-.

  9. Ibrahim says:

    The verb orient means to find one’s bearings or directions. It must have originated, I presume, from the times before the advent of modern technology, when people started off by facing the most obvious indicator of the direction, namely the rising sun in the East. It is due to this reason that Arabic has the same word for North and left which is ‘Shimaal’. As right is considered superior to the left in Muslim culture, early Muslim cartographers placed the South – which was indicated by their right hand when they faced the rising sun in the East – on top when drawing maps.