What Are Cardinal Directions?

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Cardinal directions refer to four points on a compass: north, south, east and west. Each cardinal direction is separated from another by 90 degrees out of a 360-degree circle on a compass. North is at the top, east is to the right, south points towards the bottom and west is to the left.

Along the points of the circle, north is zero or 360 degrees, east is 90 degrees, south is 180 degrees and west is 270 degrees. When reading a compass or a map, cartographers and explorers typically orient themselves facing magnetic north using a magnetic compass, which means east is to the right, west is to the left and south is behind.

Cardinal directions are used in many applications such as cartography, travel, sailing, astronomy, geography and orienteering. Mapmakers commonly put north facing upwards on a sheet of paper. Sailors use gyrocompasses to determine a ship's alignment with true north. Astronomers use cardinal directions to describe the locations of stars in the sky as they relate to the celestial sphere.

Points on a compass such as northeast, southeast, southwest and northwest are called primary intercardinal, ordinal or intermediate directions. These points are exactly halfway between the corresponding cardinal directions on a compass. The terms north, south, east and west are derived from Germanic words that replaced corresponding Latin denotations.