Today I travelled in a westerly direction for a few hours, and now I’m back in the area where I grew up, where the westerly winds prevail. And, of course, that means that I travelled against the wind.
That always confused me when I was growing up (and, honestly, I still haven’t entirely gotten over it): my understanding was that westerly meant ‘generally westward’, just as southerly means ‘generally southward’, easterly means ‘generally eastward’, and northerly means ‘generally northward’. Any time you read about someone travelling in a westerly direction, you know that they’re going towards where the sun sets. And yet every time a Chinook was blowing in, which is about once a month all winter long, the TV weather guys would talk about “warm westerly winds” (it seems obligatory: just as news people have to use the word pontiff when talking of the pope, the TV weather people in Calgary have to say “warm westerly winds” when talking about a Chinook). But if you’ve ever been outside when a Chinook is blowing in, you know very well what direction they’re blowing in: they’re blowing from the west (over the mountains), towards the east. Just like most wind in Alberta.
So what’s the deal? If you look in any decent dictionary, you will see all of that confirmed as true: westerly means ‘in the west’ or ‘towards the west’ … or, especially when talking about winds, ‘from the west’. Somehow this word is blowing hot and cold at the same time (or at least alternately, just like the winds in southern Alberta).
The trick is just that the -ly suffix comes from the same root as like and just means ‘-ish’ – in other words, ‘having some general relation to’. I kind of wish that Chinooks blew through every two weeks all winter long just so I could make a play on biweekly, but I’ll make the connection even though they don’t: just like westerly means simply ‘westish’, whatever that intends, biweekly can mean ‘twice a week’ or ‘every two weeks’ because it just has roots meaning ‘two’ and ‘week’ without further specification. It’s so confusing, there are many people who feel that only one of the two senses should be sanctioned, and the other should be, uh, sanctioned.
And just as sanction has a Janus face due to its origin with formal (typically religious) decrees, which can either enjoin or enjoin, I mean which can either require or prohibit, which way westerly trends depends on the particular association the thing in question has with the west. And while if you’re travelling and you name a direction, it’s the direction you’re headed towards, when it comes to winds, we think of them in terms of where they’re coming from. After all, they’re blowing (which envisions a motive force where they’re coming from), not sucking (which would envision a motive force where they’re going to), right? (Though, frankly, the wind in southern Alberta can really suck sometimes. Come here in late October and you’ll agree, I’m sure. But that’s a different usage of suck.)
So. Since I am originally from the west (in the grand scheme of Canada), I am in that sense a westerly person. And when I fly from Toronto to Calgary, I am heading westerly (don’t bother quibbling about Calgary also being farther north; westerly is not so precise as that). But when I fly from Calgary to Toronto, and the flight is quicker because of tailwinds, those winds that help it fly easterly are westerly winds.