How the Cardinal Directions Got Their Names

iStock/kemie
iStock/kemie

While we were wading through the origins of the names of the U.S. states last fall, reader Brit asked me where the North in North Carolina and North Dakota came from. We’re happy to oblige.

North
“North” comes from the Proto-Indo-European language (the hypothetical, reconstructed ancestor language of the Indo-European languages) base ner-, (“left”), as north is to the left when you face the rising sun.

“North American,” as a noun, was first used by Ben Franklin in 1766. “North Star” comes from the Middle English norþe sterre.

South
From the Old English suð (“southward, in the south”). Suð came from the Proto-Germanic sunthaz, which may have been based on sunnon (“sun”) in reference to sunnier, warmer southern regions.

“South Sea” meant the Mediterranean until the 1520s, when the plural form came to refer to the South Pacific Ocean.

East

From Old English, in turn from the Proto-Germanic aus-to- or austra- (“east, toward the sunrise”), which may come from either the Proto-Indo-European aus- (“to shine”) or hausos, the reconstructed name of a theoretical Proto-Indo-European goddess associated with the dawn. Both origins tie to the fact that east is the direction from which dawn breaks.

The first reference to the “East End” of London is from 1846 and the “East Side” of Manhattan from 1882. The “East Indies” were so called beginning in the 1590s to distinguish them from the West Indies.

West
From Old English, in turn from the Proto-Germanic wes-t-, in turn from the from Proto-Indo-European wes-. The PIE base might be an enlarged form of we- (“to go down”), as west is the direction in which the sun sets.

“West” used in a geopolitical sense to separate western Europe and the U.S. from the Middle East/the Orient/the Soviet bloc originated in 1918, when it was used to separate Britain and France from Germany and Austria-Hungary during World War One.

Why do we call them the cardinal directions, anyway?
"Cardinal" comes from the early 14th century and was derived from the Latin cardinalis ("principal, chief, essential").

On This Day in 1953, Jonas Salk Announced His Polio Vaccine

Getty Images
Getty Images

On March 26, 1953, Dr. Jonas Salk went on CBS radio to announce his vaccine for poliomyelitis. He had worked for three years to develop the polio vaccine, attacking a disease that killed 3000 Americans in 1952 alone, along with 58,000 newly reported cases. Polio was a scourge, and had been infecting humans around the world for millennia. Salk's vaccine was the first practical way to fight it, and it worked—polio was officially eliminated in the U.S. in 1979.

Salk's method was to kill various strains of the polio virus, then inject them into a patient. The patient's own immune system would then develop antibodies to the dead virus, preventing future infection by live viruses. Salk's first test subjects were patients who had already had polio ... and then himself and his family. His research was funded by grants, which prompted him to give away the vaccine after it was fully tested.

Clinical trials of Salk's vaccine began in 1954. By 1955 the trials proved it was both safe and effective, and mass vaccinations of American schoolchildren followed. The result was an immediate reduction in new cases. Salk became a celebrity because his vaccine saved so many lives so quickly.

Salk's vaccine required a shot. In 1962, Dr. Albert Sabin unveiled an oral vaccine using attenuated (weakened but not killed) polio virus. Sabin's vaccine was hard to test in America in the late 1950s, because so many people had been inoculated using the Salk vaccine. (Sabin did much of his testing in the Soviet Union.) Oral polio vaccine, whether with attenuated or dead virus, is still the preferred method of vaccination today. Polio isn't entirely eradicated around the world, though we're very close.

Here's a vintage newsreel from the mid 1950s telling the story:

For more information on Dr. Jonas Salk and his work, click here.

Drunken Thieves Tried Stealing Stones From Notre-Dame

Notre-Dame.
Notre-Dame.
Athanasio Gioumpasis, Getty Images

With Paris, France, joining a long list of locales shutting down due to coronavirus, two thieves decided the time was right to attempt a clumsy heist—stealing stones from the Notre-Dame cathedral.

The crime occurred last Tuesday, March 17, and appeared from the start to be ill-conceived. The two intruders entered the cathedral and were immediately spotted by guards, who phoned police. When authorities found them, the trespassers were apparently drunk and attempting to hide under a tarpaulin with a collection of stones they had taken from the premises. Both men were arrested.

It’s believed the offenders intended to sell the material for a profit. Stones from the property sometimes come up for sale on the black market, though most are fake.

The crime comes as Paris is not only dealing with the coronavirus pandemic but a massive effort to restore Notre-Dame after the cathedral was ravaged by a fire in 2019. That work has come to a halt in the wake of the health crisis, though would-be looters should take note that guards still patrol the property.

[h/t The Art Newspaper]

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