Eastward is as eastward does

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The latest xkcd:

(Click on the image for a larger version.)

The cartoon's embedded title: "Also, is it just me, or do Japan and New Zealand look suspiciously similar? Has anyone seen them at a party together?"

If you like that, you might love a discussion that took place around the water cooler at Language Log Plaza a few years ago:

"A westward loop", 10/6/2004; "Un système où tout se tient, and east is west", 10/6/2004; "Loopy defenses of the shuttle bus sign", 10/7/2004; "The gopher's eye view", 10/10/2004; "Westward on the eastbound shuttle; or, what a long strange trip that would be", 10/11/2004; "Down the gopher poll", 10/12/2004.


  1. Tom Williams said,

    November 12, 2008 @ 12:06 pm

    There are a few oddities of supposed directions on the London Tube system. If you head northbound from King's Cross St Pancras station on the Northern Line, you get to Euston. Change there onto the northbound Victoria Line, and you get back to King's Cross St Pancras.

  2. John Cowan said,

    November 12, 2008 @ 12:06 pm

    Isaac Asimov wrote an article about this called "Oh, East is West …", pointing out inter alia that Alaska is technically the easternmost of the United States as well as being obviously the northernmost and westernmost, because the some of the islands penetrate into East Longitude, and by convention every point in East Longitude is east of every point in West Longitude, as if the world were split on the 180th meridian and flattened out.

    (For those who care, the southernmost state is Hawaii; the easternmost state as normally conceived is Maine. Of the forty-eight coterminous states, the southernmost is Florida, by virtue of Key West; the westernmost is Washington; and the northernmost is Minnesota, as the result of a surveying error that incorrectly placed the 49th parallel north of the Lake of the Woods rather than through it.)

  3. Nicholas Waller said,

    November 12, 2008 @ 12:24 pm

    Australia and New Zealand (and even Japan on occasion) are thought of as being in the West (or rather, Thuh West, much as in Winnie-ther-Pooh).

  4. Stephen Jones said,

    November 12, 2008 @ 1:20 pm

    the easternmost state as normally conceived is Maine

    Doesn't the UK count any more?

  5. Ray Girvan said,

    November 12, 2008 @ 1:39 pm

    Doesn't the UK count any more?
    It's not a state; it's an airstrip.

  6. Ralph Hickok said,

    November 12, 2008 @ 1:51 pm

    There's a stretch of highway in Massachusetts which is both I-93 south and I-95 north, but when you're on it, you're traveling west. Of course, if you get off and turn around, you're traveling east on I-93 north and I-95 south.

  7. Stewart Haddock said,

    November 12, 2008 @ 1:52 pm

    I have wondered if people in other parts of the world have found this an issue as well. It seems that Iran would be just about the perfect place to live if you found this annoyance unbearable.

  8. Stuart Finlayson said,

    November 12, 2008 @ 2:13 pm

    Don't go fleeing to Iran! Wikipedia has a map that shows that the Middle East extends further west than western Europe, at least according to some people at the G8. Only by adhering to the position that north is up and south is down (and the other two are clockwise and not) can we escape this conundrum.


  9. Ric said,

    November 12, 2008 @ 2:21 pm

    The best place to escape this dilemma is the West pole – West Berlin. Head in any direction you want, you always go East.

  10. Rubrick said,

    November 12, 2008 @ 4:09 pm

    Similarly to Ralph's example, some Language Linguists are surely familiar with the SF bay area's I-580W == I-80E mind-bender.

  11. Bobbie said,

    November 12, 2008 @ 4:31 pm

    If you are on I-64 West in Chesapeake Virginia, on your way toward Richmond, for a while you are headed almost due East. And if you are driving toward Suffolk Virginia on I-64 East, you end up heading West. (That's the problem with beltways that circle urban areas.)

  12. Simon Cauchi said,

    November 12, 2008 @ 4:43 pm

    Here in New Zealand we think of ourselves as belonging to the "West", although Wellington lies just a few minutes short of longitude 175 degrees E. That's about four hours ahead of Shanghai, for example (or five hours ahead just at present, because of NZ's summer time).

  13. Benjamin Lukoff said,

    November 12, 2008 @ 5:24 pm

    Non-issue. The guy who made the comic places himself somewhere around Pittsburgh, it looks like. But the language he is speaking developed not on North America but in Europe — the western end of the Eurasian supercontinent. Asia is therefore toward the east. Should it be any surprise a language that developed in Europe is Eurocentric?

  14. mollymooly said,

    November 12, 2008 @ 5:31 pm

    Wikipedia is on the case

  15. Yonatan Zunger said,

    November 12, 2008 @ 5:37 pm

    Thinking back about the Loop naming scheme and the gopher problem, I can think of one other good way to describe the intrinsic direction — use the reference frame of people aboard the bus. "Leftwards" would be the direction you have to move such that the bus has to keep turning to the left; "rightwards" would correspond to turning to the right. Conveniently, this definition corresponds to the intuitive left/CCW right/CW pairing that people associate with the "top" of a wheel; but it has the advantage that it works even for a gopher, since it depends only on the intrinsic geometry of the loop and its embedding on the surface of the Earth.

  16. David said,

    November 12, 2008 @ 5:43 pm

    maybe someone can also explain why we call them the 'West Indies' if Columbus thought he had discovered the East coast of India?

  17. dr pepper said,

    November 12, 2008 @ 7:00 pm

    Here's what bugs me. If "the west" is defined as that succession of cultures rooted in Egypt and Mesopotamia, and which before the 1500's occupied mainly former roman territory, why do people from arab countries tend to speak as if they were not part of it?

  18. j done said,

    November 12, 2008 @ 8:00 pm

    Regarding loops, in Tokyo the Yamanote line circles Tokyo with trains going in both directions. They differentiate between the two directions using inside and outside rotation. The outside train would be the train traveling clockwise. In America this would be counter clockwise since traffic travels on the opposite side of the road / tracks.

  19. Troy S. said,

    November 12, 2008 @ 10:20 pm

    Just as puzzlingly, the three major religions rooted in the Middle East: Christianity, Islam, and Judaism are all considered "Western" religions.
    Is our view of religion Sinocentric?

  20. Julia K said,

    November 13, 2008 @ 12:32 am

    I am so tired of hearing the terms "western tradition," "western religions," "western culture," etc., used casually, especially when they are used to mean either "civilized traditions" or "things we don't like about America." The former misuse is more archaic, the latter more contemporary. In addition, it's also very Anglocentric to include in the set of "western" countries places like Australia but not Argentina.

    So if ever I MUST use geographic phrases like that, I refer to hemispheres only. For example, Christianity, Islam, and Judaism were all started in and initially grew in Asia and are therefore eastern religions. Greek mythology and West African Vodoun are examples of western religions. I do admit that this kind of usage is worth more as a protest than as straightforwardly useful language, but protest is sometimes ok.

    In most cases, if I know enough about the topic to be more precise, I try to use better phrases like "Enlightenment tradition," "Abrahamic religions," or "Mediterranean culture." And if I don't know enough about the topic to be precise, I have to ask myself why I'm talking about it.

  21. Julia K said,

    November 13, 2008 @ 12:35 am

    Correction to the above, sorry. I know that Greece and West Africa are in the eastern hemisphere. I meant to say that I would place the dividing line between Europe/Africa and Asia.

  22. GAC said,

    November 13, 2008 @ 1:12 am

    What really is "Western religion" exactly? We generally think of Western traditions as European-derived, so I'm guessing only European Christianity really counts? Maybe a few forms of Judaism?

    Of course, I've more often heard the Abrahamic religions referred to as Middle Eastern religions. There is where the eurocentrism figures in — there is a Middle East, but no Middle West. Not that their couldn't be, we could totally call Europe the Middle West and the Americas the Far West.

    Oh, traditional geographic metaphors, how you amuse and confuse us!

  23. Louis said,

    November 13, 2008 @ 2:25 am

    Strangely enough the words in Japanese are the same, 中東 means "Middle East" and 近東 is "Near East", While "The West" is 西洋 (West Ocean). Japan too seems to put the middle of the world in Western Europe.

  24. Stacy said,

    November 13, 2008 @ 3:37 am

    Two of the main highways in Chicago are just plain odd: when driving "eastbound" on the Dan Ryan (I-90/95), you'll actually be going straight south or sometimes south-southeast (and vice versa for westbound); when driving "northbound" on the Stevenson (I-55), you'll actually be going straight west or northwest-west. I've always wondered why they didn't just switch all the labels.

  25. Ellen K. said,

    November 13, 2008 @ 9:37 am

    Stacy, shouldn't that be North = east?

    Dr. Pepper, seems to me "the West" would be the cultures descented from the ancient greek culture and the influence of the Roman Empire. And especially the Western empire after the split.

  26. Chris said,

    November 13, 2008 @ 10:31 am

    There's a stretch of highway in southwestern Virginia where one direction is I-77 South and I-81 North; the other, logically (if that's the word), is I-77 North and I-81 South. The road actually runs more or less east-west.

    This becomes clearer when you look at the big picture: I-81 actually runs SW-NE while I-77 runs SE-NW, and for that one stretch it was cheaper to make them coincide. So it looks something like >-<, with the – being the section with the contradictory designations.

  27. Colum McAndrew said,

    November 13, 2008 @ 1:04 pm

    Talking of the London underground I remember reading "Notes from a Small Island" where Bill Bruson was asked by an American Tourist how get to Mansion House tube station from Monument tube station. Answering the question in a literal manner to told the tourist where he had to change lines to reach his destination. Bill then took his train one stop to Bank (where you can't easily reach Mansion House – at least not by tube) came up to street level, walked the 300 yards to Mansion House tube and waited for the said tourist to arrive!

  28. dr pepper said,

    November 14, 2008 @ 1:42 am

    @ Ellen K.

    > seems to me "the West" would be the cultures descented from the
    > ancient greek culture and the influence of the Roman Empire.
    > And especially the Western empire after the split.

    Except that in school they start with Sumeria.

  29. Ken Brown said,

    November 14, 2008 @ 12:38 pm

    Troy S. said:

    > Just as puzzlingly, the three major religions rooted in the Middle East:
    > Christianity, Islam, and Judaism are all considered "Western" religions.
    > Is our view of religion Sinocentric?

    More like Irano-centric. The big "Eastern" religions all come from India – Hindu, Buddhist, Jain, Sikh and so on. In China they are all "western". The best-known of all Chinese stories here is "The Journey to the West", from which the famous "Monkey" is taken, and it tells of pilgrims who have to travel to the west to bring back scriptures. (Maybe its only the best-known if you were a kid in the 1970s or 1980s and saw the very silly Japanese TV series – though it has turned up in more than one comicbook and there is now a stage show in London based on it)

  30. latinist said,

    November 14, 2008 @ 10:13 pm

    It always bothered me that English has the phrases "Near East," "Middle East" and "Far East," but "Near East" and "Middle East" refer to the same region. What a waste!

  31. Chuck said,

    November 15, 2008 @ 12:07 am

    @Stacey: The directional designation doesn't change on the road signs despite the immediate direction of travel because of the federal code establishing the interstate numbering system. Even-numbered interstates cross the country east-west (latitundinally) vs. the odd-numbered interstates, which go north-south (longitundinally). The 'direction' of travel is signed based solely on the terminus to which the traffic is flowing. So in Chicago, though you may be going north on the Dan Ryan, you're headed to the western terminus of I-90 and 94, so the road is signed West.

    Similarly, here in the Bay Area, headed north from the MacArthur Maze, you're traveling on East I-80 and West I-580 because you're en route either to the eastern terminus of I-80 or the western terminus of I-580, depending on which direction you choose to go when they split — despite the fact you're driving due north.

  32. parse said,

    November 15, 2008 @ 12:11 am

    I live in Southwest Brooklyn, just a few blocks from the East River.

  33. John Baker said,

    November 15, 2008 @ 1:32 am

    Ralph, your example was I-93 and SR 128. However, a few years ago the signage was changed, so that 128 now ends where I-93 begins.

    Massachusetts also used to take the position that SR 28 (no relation to SR 128, except that they're both Massachusetts highways) ran north-south, come hell, high water, or twists in the road itself. On the inner portions of Cape Cod, which runs east-west, that wasn't too bad. It was positively confusing on the outer Cape, where tourists driving on 28 south were in fact driving due north. Again, the less imaginative officials of today's highway department have changed the signs.

  34. David Harmon said,

    November 16, 2008 @ 9:39 pm

    On the XKCD blog, someone noted that our general East/West divisions date mostly from a time when Jerusalem was considered the "center of the world".

  35. gribley said,

    November 16, 2008 @ 11:22 pm

    I love the wrong-way highway thing — here's a photo of a nice example, taken while biking through the Adirondacks this past summer.

  36. Fraud Guy said,

    November 17, 2008 @ 10:59 pm

    And near my town, there is an area where sections of I-355 (the North-South Tollway) and I-88 (the East-West Tollway) run parallel to each other.

    Although, it can be said that at that point, neither of them can be said to be running North, South, East, or West.

    Then some politicians renamed I-88 the Ronald Reagan Memorial, so now you can only go right on that tollway.

  37. Bill Ward said,

    November 24, 2008 @ 9:30 pm

    In the southern San Francisco bay area, I-280 and US-101 do some weird geographical things, yet both are labeled north/south. In San Jose, both are mostly east-west, however.

    Also to revisit the UCSC shuttle issue: Sometime between then and now, UCSC TAPS changed their wording to "traveling east to west from the campus Main Entrance to the West Remote parking lot" — that should make Geoff happy, I would hope…? (I was at UCSC from '88 to '93)

    I now live near Stanford, and their "Marguerite" shuttle system employes the "Clockwise" and "Counter Clockwise" direction naming. Only problem is, whoever programmed the signs did it in a bone-headed manner: the counter-clockwise shuttles display signs that read "COUNTER-" for a few seconds, and then "CLOCKWISE" so that if you show up at the stop and see a bus labeled "CLOCKWISE" you have to actually stand there for a few seconds before you can know which way it's going. Since both types of shuttles stop at the same place (facing the same direction) at the train station in Palo Alto, it's a problem. Here, "INNER" and "OUTER" would make a lot of sense, because unlike UCSC Stanford is not "top heavy."

  38. john g said,

    December 2, 2008 @ 3:47 am

    Julie (13 Nov.) wrote about 'western religions'. Now the Cambridge Guide to English Usage states that this is to be capitalised when referring to cultural differences ie Western religions. Lower case (western) refers to geographical locations. So perhaps Julie should have mentioned that she was referring to western religions as experienced along Kensington High Street (London W.10). But she might have meant religions to the west of London (ie Southall where western religions are far more mulitfarious). So Caps please for Culture so as to avoid any Confuscionism.

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