Chinese Tuesdays: Compass


When I first learnt the word for compass, 指南针 (zhǐnánzhēn – "south pointing needle"), I thought: That’s weird, why isn’t it 指北针 (zhǐběizhēn – "north pointing needle")? I read somewhere that the reason the needle points south is because the ocean is generally to the south in ancient China. Does anyone know if this is true?

When I looked it up the other night, I discovered that people also say 指北针. There don’t seem to be any obvious usage differences between the two. Baidu gives me 29,300,000 hits for 指南针, and 2,720,000 for 指北针, so I guess the latter isn’t used that often.

Every Tuesday on the Anthill, Sam Duncan posts a langauge titbit from his blog. Read them all here