The nautical terms "port and starboard" refer to the left and right side of a vessel when looking from the stern to the bow. At first it seems silly, but, it's actually great to unambiguously refer to a side of the boat, whatever your orientation or point of view is.

A million times I've heard "there is a stain in the left corner of your mouth. No, your other left". I'm pretty sure "left" means left for the person with the stain. But, it leads to eternal confusion!

I wonder if there are languages out there that have this resolved.

  • Try looking at Fillmore's Deixis Lectures.
    – jlawler
    Jan 9, 2021 at 23:16
  • 1
    You could always just tell people they have a stain in the starboard corner of their mouth… except of course for the fact that nobody outside nautical circles can ever remember which is which. Jan 10, 2021 at 0:05
  • 2
    Isn't that "your left"? Jan 10, 2021 at 0:41
  • @Azor Ahai: Technically, you're correct, in reality however, there is confusion
    – lode
    Jan 10, 2021 at 4:50
  • @JanusBahsJacquet I guess that on a ship that could mean the side of your mouth closer to the ship’s starboard. Just as “northwest corner of the wall” can mean the top left or it can mean geographically NW. It is not easy to be unambiguous!
    – J-mster
    Jan 10, 2021 at 20:00

1 Answer 1


This isn't really something to 'resolve', ambiguities and misunderstandings will always happen in every language.

But there are several languages which predominantly use cardinal/geographic directions rather than egocentric/relative directions. Some Australian languages don't have words for egocentric directions like 'left' and 'right'.

  • 1
    Thanks for that link. "Body_relative_direction" and "egocentric vs cardinal" directions were the keywords I needed. Wow, Spatial awareness must be very different if you're always using cardinal directions.
    – lode
    Jan 10, 2021 at 4:53
  • I read somewhere that in China, if you ask a stranger in a city for a way to get to a place, they will not use “turn right, then turn left”, but they'll rather say “turn to the south, then turn to the east”.
    – Yellow Sky
    Jan 13, 2021 at 15:36

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.