septentrionate: to tend, or point, to the north

The Bigger Dipper / Plough asterism

This word septentrion and its derivatives are hardly anglicized; they are harsh, unnecessary and little used, and may well be suffered to pass into disuse.

Noah Webster, American Dictionary Of The English Language (1828)

The Septentrion is pictured above—the seven stars that make up the asterism known in the UK as the Plough and in the USA as the Big Dipper. The name is Latin, from septem triones, traditionally understood to mean “seven plough-oxen”.*  And, pleasingly enough, the Septentrion septentrionates—two of its stars, Dubhe and Merak (the rightmost pair in the image above), point to the Pole Star.

Since the Septentrion stays always in the northern sky, it became (with a lower-case “s”) a synonym for northern things—the direction, and places in that direction. Northern things are septentrionalseptentrial or septentrionic. The state of being northern is septentrionality, and if you move northwards you travel septentrionally. (Webster, having been rude enough about septentrion and septentrionate, could barely speak when it came to septentrionality and septentrionally, dismissing each as simply “A bad word“.)

In the days when map-makers used Latin, they marked the northern edge of their maps Septentrio, as in Abraham Ortelius’s Septentrionalium Regionum Descriptio (“Map of the Northern Regions”), from the sixteenth century:

Abraham Ortelius's map of northern regions (c1570)
Click to enlarge

If you look around the edges of the map, you’ll see that they’re all labelled with the names of the principal directions, and I’m going to come to the others later. But first, some more northern words.

The Greeks and Romans called the cold north wind Boreas, and that gives us our word boreal—the boreal forest, the band of conifers that circles the globe in high northern latitudes, is the largest biome on the world, outside of the oceans. And of course the aurora borealis (“northern dawn”) is a quintessentially northern phenomenon. Something pertaining to the north is borean, and something pertaining to extreme north is hyperborean. (Ortelius’s map contains an Oceanus Hyperboreus, which we now know as the Greenland Sea.) And Robert E. Howard was undoubtedly playing with the Greek concept of hyperborea (“extreme northern lands”) when he invented his own Hyborean Age for the adventures of Conan the Barbarian. Finally, I can’t move on without mentioning the verb to borealize, a word reserved for the affectation of Northern English manners or pronunciation by a Southern English person. (Does that ever happen?)

At the start of this post, I described the Plough (Big Dipper) as an asterism because, strictly speaking, it is not a constellation in its own right, merely part of the constellation of Ursa Major, the Great Bear—the three stars of its handle forming an improbable tail for the bear:

Sidney Hall's Ursa Major from Urania's Mirror

The Greeks called this constellation Arctos (“bear”), which gives us our word arctic. Someone who explores or navigates in arctic regions is an arctician, and if you have become accustomed to arctic conditions you have arcticized. And of course the part of the world opposite the Arctic is the Antarctic.

Then there’s our word “north”, which comes from a Germanic root that also gives us nordic, “pertaining to Scandinavia and its peoples”. Nordicism is the state of being nordic, and Norway was the “north way” for ancient navigators. Finally, there’s the rather splendid Canadian concept of nordicity, which  refers to “the state, degree, awareness and representation of cold territoriality in the northern hemisphere”. Nordicity is measured using a nordic index, which scores a location against ten criteria relating to environmental conditions in high northern latitudes, allowing a map to be drawn connecting places of equal nordicity using isonords. (No, really.)

Nordicity map
Source: Historica Canada

Now, moving to the side edges of Ortelius’s map, we find the Latin directions Occidens (“West”) and Oriens (“East”), which give us the English words Occident and Orient with the same meanings, as well as the adjectives occidental and oriental, and the nouns occidentalism and orientalism, denoting the culture or style of western and eastern nations, respectively. An orientalist studies oriental languages or culture; an occidentalist does the same for occidental languages and culture, but the word is much more rarely used.

A “pearl of orient” was once the term for a pearl taken from an Indian Ocean oyster, considered to have superior lustre to European pearls—so orient is a rare technical term for pearl lustre. The verb to orient originally meant to position something so that it points east—specifically Christian churches, which are traditionally built with the chancel and altar at the east end. It later took on the more general meaning of moving something (or oneself) into a specific position, or of finding one’s position—the latter giving us the name of the sport, orienteering. The verb to orient has a cousin, to orientate, with exactly the same meaning—its use is restricted almost entirely to British English.

Churches aligned conventionally to the east are said to be oriented. Those rare Christian churches which face west instead are sometimes said to be occidented, though this seems to be more of a joke than a technical term of art.

Ortelius marks the south with Latin Meridies, which means “south” but also “mid-day”, because that’s the direction in which the sun lies at noon, north of the tropics. It gives us our word meridian, which used to mean “mid-day”. By association, it was also used as a name for some things that happened at mid-day—either a rest period, if you were a hard-working monk, or a shot of whisky, if you were a nineteenth-century Scot. Nowadays it designates a north-south line of longitude—at noon, the sun lies on the same meridian of longitude as the observer.

Something that pertains to the south, or noon, or a meridian line, is meridional. Something that occurs in the morning is antemeridian; something in the afternoon is postmeridian—hence our familiar abbreviations for these time periods, a.m. and p.m. And a meridiation is a fine old word for a mid-day snooze. Both the word and the concept should enjoy greater popularity.

The Romans called the south wind Auster, which gives us our word austral, pertaining to the south. The aurora australis is the southern cousin of the aurora borealis, and Australia is a southern country. (Confusingly, Austria is an eastern country—its German name, Österreich, means “eastern realm”.) The word austrian was once used to mean “southern”, but that never took off, for obvious reasons; and austrine died a similar death. Australopithecus means “southern ape”—it was an extinct genus of hominin first discovered in South Africa.

Finally, austromancy is a the practice of divining the future by observing the winds and cloud movements. I can offer no technical advice, but the etymology suggests that the south wind was particularly important to austromancers, for some reason.

* I say “traditionally” because triones meaning “plough oxen” is apparently only ever attested by Latin authors, such as Varro, who are attempting to explaining the etymology of the word septentrio. We don’t have any examples of its use applied to real plough oxen.
If the name really does refer to oxen, one is left wondering why. One suggestion is that the rotation of the Septentrion asterism around the Pole Star reminded the Romans of the movement of oxen around the central axis of a threshing floor. But that doesn’t explain the “ploughing” reference.

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