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Septentrional, meaning "of the north", is a word that is rarely used in English but is commonly used in Latin and in the Romance languages. The term is sometimes found on maps mostly made before 1700, Early maps of North America often refer to the northern- or northwestern-most unexplored areas of the continent at "Septentrional" or "America Septentrionalis", sometimes with slightly varying spellings.[note 1] The term septentrional, actually the adjectival form of the noun septentrion, itself refers to the seven stars of the Big Dipper asterism (aka "Septentrion").
The OED gives the etymology 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 interchangeable term with "boreal." Ursa Major, the constellation containing the Big Dipper or Plough, dominates the skies of the North. There does not appear to be a truly comparable term linking the regions of the South with some prominent feature of the Southern Sky. The usual antonym for "septentrional" is "meridional." This word, however, refers not to a celestial feature in the South, but to the noonday sun.
Gene Wolfe used the word in The Book of the New Sun as the name of a praetorian guard especially close to the ruler, hence part of the inner circle of the palace as these stars are close to the pole 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 from around 1680 by Moses Pitt labels North America as America Septentriona. This label is placed in the uncharted northwestern portion of North America, which could also be significant.