Iwas speaking to a Minister of government the other day and I said, “If we don’t get this done a.s.a.p. the whole deal will go south,” when it struck me, “Why south?” Indeed, why should south have negative associations? So I started to cogitate and this is what I came up with.
The etymology of “going south” appears to be connected to the financial industry. If prices go down, they can be depicted with an arrow pointing downward or “going south”, just as the arrow points south on a compass. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the earliest citation of “going south” referring to a decrease in prices dates to 1920 from a newspaper article in the Elgin Dairy Reporter about falling meat and grain prices. After that, there are almost no citations until the 1970s when “go south, turn south, dip south” and other similar terms appeared in publications like Business Week and The Financial Times, referring to falling prices and any time something ends up in a worse condition than it was before.
North is above south, right? Despite almost everybody accepting that the world is this way up, there is no good reason for thinking that north is at the top of the world and south is at the bottom. Even NASA flips its photos from outer space so that the world appears as we believe it to be and not as it is when filmed from space.
We humans have a long history of drawing maps on cave walls, on stone tablets, on papyrus, paper and computer screens, but it is only within the last few hundred years that north has been consistently at the top. Early Chinese compasses were actually oriented to point south. But on Chinese maps the Emperor, who lived in the north of the country, was always put at the top of the map so his loyal subjects were looking up towards him while he was looking down on them. In Chinese culture the Emperor looks south because it’s where the winds come from; it’s a good direction. North is not very good but if you are in a position of subjection to the emperor, you look up to him by looking north.
Given that each culture has a very different idea of who, or what, they should look up to it’s perhaps not surprising that there is very little consistency in which way early maps pointed. In ancient Egypt the top of the world was east, the position of sunrise. Early Islamic maps favoured south at the top because most of the early Muslim cultures were north of Mecca, so they imagined looking down or south, towards it. A very early Christian map called Mappa Mundi put east at the top because that was where the Garden of Eden was to be found, with Jerusalem in the centre.
European explorers like Christopher Columbus, who was born in Italy, and Magellan, who was born in Portugal, sailed under the Spanish flag and navigated by the North Star. Columbus is credited with being the first to discover America, but he wasn’t, and Magellan, though he died on the way, with being the first to circumnavigate the world. In this age of GPS we must, however, remember that at the time no one knew what they were doing and where they were going.
Mercator’s 1569 world map was a defining moment in north-up map-making. He famously took into account the curvature of the Earth, so that sailors could cross long distances without overshooting the mark. Whatever the reasons, north-up is an idea that seems to have stuck. Mercator, by the way, was born in Flanders, today’s Belgium, but the Dutch like to claim him as one of their own.
Then there is the socio-economic and political North–South Divide. The global North includes the USA, Canada and Western Europe, and parts of Asia, as well as Australia and New Zealand, which are not located in the northern hemisphere but share similar economic and cultural characteristics as other northern countries. The global South comprises the rest. The North is home to all the members of the G8 and to four of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council.
The North may be defined as the richer, more developed region and the South as the poorer, less developed region. 95% of the North has enough food, shelter and functioning educational systems. In the South only 5% of the population has enough food and shelter. The South lacks appropriate technology, has little or no political stability, and poor economies.
In economic terms the North, with one quarter of the world’s population, controls four-fifths of the world’s income and owns 90% of the world’s manufacturing industries. The South, with three quarters of the world’s population, has access to 20% of the world’s income. As nations develop they may become part of the North, regardless of geographical location; similarly, any nations that do not qualify for developed status are, in effect, doomed to be part of the South in this Topsy-Turvy World.