Which Direction Is North West? A Case for Why Celebrities Should Hire a Baby Name Consultant; a Reality Check by Julie Hackett, Owner of OhBabyNames.com

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Although unconventional as a given name, North West's meaning is pretty straightforward, right? Think again.

It was Kim Kardashian and Kanye West who put North West "on the map” when they gave this directional moniker to their newborn baby girl in June of 2013. When asked about it by Barbara Walters on The View, North West’s grandmother, Kris Kardashian, had this to say: “The way [Kim] explained it to me, north means highest power, and North is their highest point together. I thought that was really sweet." And most people would agree. That is sweet. Like “Sweet’n Low” sweet.

A natural question follows, however, and one that's just begging to be asked: Is Kimye’s interpretation of their baby’s name accurate? Symbolically, yes. Etymologically, probably not. In fact, from an etymological perspective, Kimye may have inadvertently given their innocent baby girl a double-dose of the “downers”.

But first, what is Etymology exactly? Quite simply, it’s the study of words, their origin, their history, and how their literal, practical and symbolic meanings evolve over time. Every word in the English language has its own fascinating story behind its likely origin and what idea or notion it initially meant to convey. The words “north” and “west” are no exception.

The Proto-Indo-European (PIE) language is considered the first (“proto”) or ancestral language of all of the major European language groups such as Celtic, Germanic, Hellenic, Indo-Iranian, Italic and Slavic. Because no written linguistic record was left by the Proto-Indo-European man (believed to have lived in prehistoric times during the Neolithic Era and older parts of the Bronze Age), the linguistic study of PIE is hypothetical – in essence, it’s a deconstruction of words that exist (or have existed) in all the major and minor branches of PIE to find a common, probable ancestral root origin. Anglo-Saxon (Olde English) developed into Middle English which ultimately expanded into what we speak today, Modern English (a language branch of Germanic). The generally accepted PIE deconstructions of our Modern English words denoting direction (East, North, West and South) centered on the rising sun (East).

In ancient times, East was the focus; the direction one faced while worshipping the rising sun. The Olde English word “ēasten” was most likely derived from the Proto-Germanic *austra- meaning “toward the sunrise” from the PIE root *aues- meaning “to shine, dawn”. [1] East was the highest power, or the highest point, from a directional perspective. It was while facing east where people of the ancient world found their bearings.

North is believed to be derived from the Proto-Germanic *nurthra, from the Proto Indo-European (PIE) root *ner- meaning “below, left”. Supporting evidence left by two now-extinct Italic languages (long-ago replaced by Latin) leaves little doubt that the words “nertrak” and “nertru” meant “to the left” because that’s where North could be found when one was facing the rising sun (to the east). The PIE notion of *ner- meaning “below, under” is supported by the Greek “nérteros” (nether, infernal) as well as the Sanskrit "narakah" meaning “below the earth (hell)”. [2]

It is thought that West comes from the PIE root *ue- meaning “to go down” in reference to the direction where the sun sets. [3]

And finally, the Old Saxon “sūthar” (South) is believed to have meant, quite literally, “from the region of the sun”, derived from the PIE root *suen- meaning “sun”. [4] In the Northern Hemisphere, the southerly direction enjoys most of the sun because of the way the earth rotates on its axis. This is why moss grows on the shady (northern) side of trees.

Paradoxically, for most of written history, the default direction pointing upwards on maps was East, not North. Everything was “oriented” around the rising sun (apropos, “oriens” is the Latin word for “East”). All such linguistic conclusions and hypotheses provide logical evidence as to the true PIE root meanings of the words North (left, below), West (to go down), South (sun) and East (dawn).

The 1st century Greek astronomer Ptolemy is credited with placing North at the top of maps in reference to Polaris (the North Star), which is the brightest star in the Northern Hemisphere’s night sky (the sky is upwards). It wasn’t until the Late Middle Ages, when Ptolemy’s 1,500 year-old maps were reintroduced, that North’s positioning at the top became the defacto rule in Western map making. Let it be known, however, that this is not true for all maps, even today. North is not universally accepted as the top-most direction.

This is the history behind the reason most people (Westerners mainly) associate the directions North with “upwards” and South with “downwards” – because of their respective locations when facing a conventional map as well as their symbolic positions in terms of where we conceive them to be. This is certainly a fair interpretation; symbolically Kimye chose the right name.

Etymologically, however, reality orients us in a completely different direction. The name North West actually means “to the left, below, beneath, to go down’’. North is merely a metaphor for up; not a real definition - just one that has evolved symbolically over time. The generally accepted facts from a word-origin point of view reveal a different truth. That North West is a total "downer" of a name. Oh, the irony.

There is no doubt that “Kimye” was being sincere whilst explaining the name of their beautiful baby girl as their “highest point”. The only direction North West really points is directly toward the hearts of her parents. And recently, that direction happened to be toward the Paris fashion shows about 5,600 miles northeast from North West’s bassinet in California. Maybe they should have named her “Leave Her Out” West.

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[1, 2, 4] The Barnhart Dictionary of Etymology edited by Robert K. Barnhart (HW Wilson Co., 1988)
[3] The Origins of English Words: A Discursive Dictionary of Indo-European Roots edited by Joseph T. Shipley (The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1984)

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Shakespeare once asked, “What is in a name?” Our mission at OhBabyNames.com is to provide our readers with the most comprehensive, detailed and accurate information on most commonly used baby names of the day. "A human being's name is a principal component in his person, perhaps a piece of his soul." - Sigmund Freud

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