Compass points

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Sailors, who cannot be precise to a matter of single degrees because of the natural variability of wind and waves, were used to a system of approximate directions. Commanders under sail (and laymen on land) recognize 32 points of the compass (these are the points shown round the circle of a compass card, or the compass rose), and a seaman 'passed able' can recite all of these in order ('box the compass'), giving reciprocals and other relationships. In modern usage, navigation is normally expressed in terms of the 360 degrees (°) of the [horizontal] circle, measured clockwise from North (0°).

If you are interested in navigation, beware of complications arising from distinctions between 'true North', 'magnetic North' (which varies continually, with the Earth's magnetic field, and is affected by magnetic deviation and magnetic deflection or variation), 'grid north' (the orientation of a 2-dimensional map with respect to the real world; in Europe, North is conventionally shown at the top of a map or page, with East to the right) and 'astronomical north' (defined with reference to the celestial poles.) AWE gives no advice about these subtleties and technical terms.
If you are interested in the history of navigation and seamanship, etc, you may want to know about the older tradition of naming the points of the wind-rose in terms of the conventional names of winds in the Mediterranean. See the wikipedia article at [[1]], particularly the section called "Traditional Names".

In ordinary use, most people can recognize:

  • the four cardinal points: North (0°, abbreviated N), South (180°, S), East (90°, E) and West (270°, W). Between these come
  • the intercardinal points NE (45°), SE (135°), SW (225°) and NW (315°). These are at the bisections of the cardinal points.
  • Bisecting these eight points are eight further full points In clockwise order, these are NNE, ENE, ESE, SSE, SSW, WSW, WNW and NNW.
  • The last 16 full points are NbE ('North by East', which falls between N and NNE), NEbN, NEbE, EbN, EbS, SEbE, SEbS, SbE, SbW, SWbS, SWbW, WbS, WbN, NWbW, NWbN, NbW. All these are at an angle of 11.25° from their immediate neighbours. (There is no such direction on the traditional compass as 'North by Northwest', which Alfred Hitchcock used as the title of a thriller film, issued in 1959.)
  • Skilled mariners could additionally refine a bearing by giving any one of the 32 full points with further fractional divisions such as 'and a quarter east' (a further 2.81° towards east), and 'a half north' (5.22° towards the north), but such distinctions are very fine, and no further refinements were made in the traditional sailing ship. It is easier with bearings expressed in terms of the 360° circle.

Some derivatives of the names of the cardinal points raise some linguistic points.

  • A quirk in the meaning of the compound adjectives formed with the name of a point + -erly should be noted. A sailor who travels in an easterly direction is moving towards the east, but an easterly wind is coming from the east. The prevailing winds in Britain are sou'westerlies, which blow towards the nor'east.
    • Note that there is much variation in whether such compounds as north-westerly should be hyphenated (OED's preferred form) or not, or whether they should be written with an apostrophe - which seems illogical, unless they are in the contracted form nor'easterly.
  • There are certain pronunciations that are traditional in nautical circles.
    • When 'North' and 'South' form the first element in various compounds, such as the names of the intercardinal points, they are often abbreviated to Nor' and Sou'. Hence you will see them spelled that, or similar, ways, as in sou-wester, a name for a waterproof oilskin hat - as well as the name of a wind which often brings much rain.
    • -ward[s] is often reduced to 'erd[s] (IPA: /ɜːrd[s]/), with spellings that reflect it: -ard[s], norward, norr'ud, nor'ard and so on.
    • For a note on some variations in the realization of some compounds formed with 'south', see South (pronunciation).
  • A note on the form of the compounds formed with the name of a cardinal point + -wards: the adjectives are formed with -ward, while the adverbs can be either -ward or -wards: British English prefers -wards, while Americans are more likely to use -ward. Both varieties of English may slur the suffix (above).
    • Westward Ho! is a novel by Charles Kingsley. It is an historical tale about the exploration of the Americas, whose hero is Amyas Leigh, who grew up in Bideford, in Devon. It has given its name to the town Westward Ho!, near Bideford, allegedly the only name of a settlement in the UK with an exclamation mark as part of it. The village was begun in 1863, with an hotel, to capitalize on the success of the novel.

See also South (pronunciation).

You may also want to see two other articles on directions at windward and leeward, and an article on the suffix -ward (or -wards).