28 August 2015
North is Not Up, Nor is South Down
Posted by John Freeland
I can’t count the number times I’ve heard a TV weather person make a statement akin to “this line of thunderstorms will pass below New York by Thursday afternoon.”
Yes, and while it’ll be sunny up top on the street, if you’re working all day in the subway, or on underground utilities, you’ll need an umbrella. Be prepared to seek safety in daylight as those storms may produce lightning and damaging winds.
One day, years ago, while teaching a high school ecology class in New Hampshire, a student pointed to the large shaded relief map of North America hanging on the front wall. He walked up closer and pointed to the St. Lawrence River, which flows northeast past the Gaspe peninsula to the Gulf of St. Lawrence, and asked, “How can that river flow uphill like that?”
I found out later this confusion over “up” vs. “north” involving this very same river was a common problem dating back over a century, as wrote Amos W. Farnham of the State Normal School in Oswego New York advising aspiring teachers in Chapter XXI, American Education, volume 8 (1904) and who “nails it” thusly:
Don’t use “up” for north, nor “down” for south. “Down” is with the pull of gravity and ends at the center of the earth. “Up” is opposite to the pull of gravity and ends at infinity. The directions “up” and “down” are parallel with the earth’s radii, and, therefore, cannot be used for the cardinal directions “north” and “south.”
This confusion of terms results from the use of “wall” maps, which for the accommodation of the class, are presented in a vertical plane, with this instruction: “north” is toward the top of the map, and “south” is towards the bottom.
Don’t teach geography without the aid of the sand tray. The sand tray, pictures, blackboard and maps are indispensable in geography teaching. They are necessary to concrete the word.
This is the first and only time I recall “concrete” used as a verb. I like it. Farnham goes on to describe a student who (mistakenly) traced the course of the St. Lawrence River to its mouth at Lake Ontario (see map above, or, rather, at the top of the page).
But, probably, the most egregious example of north-up, south-down confusion is the description of Australia as the “Land Down Under.” When will this confused world finally start giving accurate directions to one of its continents?