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Septentrional, meaning "of the north", is a word rarely used in English, but is commonly used in Latin and in the Romance languages. The term septentrional usually is found on maps, mostly those made before 1700. Early maps of North America often refer to the northern- and northwestern-most unexplored areas of the continent as at the "Septentrional" and as "America Septentrionalis", sometimes with slightly varying spellings.[note 1] Moreover, the term septentrional, is the adjectival form of the Latin noun septentrion, which refers to the seven stars of the Big Dipper asterism, the Septentrion.
The Oxford English Dictionary gives the etymology of septentrional as:
- [ad. L. septentrio, sing. of septentriōnēs, orig. septem triōnēs, the seven stars of the constellation of the Great Bear, f. septem seven + triōnes, pl. of trio plough-ox. Cf. F. septentrion.]
"Septentrional" is a more or less synonymous with the term "boreal". The constellation Ursa Major, containing the Big Dipper, or Plough, dominates the skies of the North. There does not appear to be a comparable term linking the regions of the South with some prominent astral feature of the Southern sky. The usual antonym for septentrional is the term meridional, which refers to the noonday sun, not to a celestial feature in the Southern sky.
The novelist Gene Wolfe used the word septentrional in The Book of the New Sun, as the name of a praetorian guard, who are especially close to the ruler, hence are part of the palace inner-circle; such stars are close to the polar star.
The term, sometimes abbreviated to "Sep.", was used in historical astronomy to indicate the northern direction on the celestial globe, together with Meridional ("Mer.") for southern, Oriental ("Ori.") for eastern and Occidental ("Occ.") for western.
- For example, the "Double Hemisphere" world map, by Moses Pitt, dated about 1680, by labels North America as America Septentriona, to identify the uncharted, northwest of North America.