I Don’t Know Which End Is Front
Posted by Neal on October 11, 2004
Over at Language Log, there’s been a lively discussion over whether or not it makes sense to refer to bus routes that make a loop as eastbound or westbound, instead of, say, clockwise or counterclockwise. The same problem comes up when circular directions are referred to as right (for clockwise) or left (for counterclockwise). “Righty tighty, lefty loosey” is the mnemonic for how to tighten or loosen most nuts, screws, and bolts, but when you’re turning a nut to the right (i.e. clockwise), really it’s only the top part that’s going to the right. The bottom is going to the left. And the left is going up. And the right is going down. And all the parts in between are going at other angles.
It only makes sense if you look at it from the point of view of the hand that’s operating the tool. When you turn a screwdriver clockwise, your thumb is moving to the right, as are the other fingers, except maybe for the pinky, which pretty much moves straight down. Since you can’t rotate your forearm 360 degrees, there is no leftward movement except when you let go to get your hand in position for the next turn of the screwdriver.
On the subject of east, west, right, and left, I don’t like hearing people say things like, “Indiana is to the left of Ohio.” No, that’s only if I’m facing north. And Canada is not above the US–go outside, look up, and see for yourself.
This all reminds me of another difference in thinking about directions that caused confusion for a while when my wife or I would be shopping with the kids. For me, the front of the shopping cart is the part farthest from the handle. For my wife, the front is the part you push. I’m following the model of things that move: The part that arrives first is the front. (Except for octopuses and other cephalopods, I suppose.) She’s following the paradigm of refrigerators, computers, TVs, washing machines, ovens, etc.: The part that faces you is the front.
Doug used to get caught in the crossfire, at least until he got too big to fit in the built-in seat. I’d say he had to ride in the back, and he’d be trying to climb into the front. The solution? Now I do the grocery shopping at night.