Why Do Street Signs in the South Portland Sextant Still Say “SW”?

Sextant? Sextant.

GOING SOUTH: Gazing into South Portland from the downtown waterfront. (Danny Fulgencio/Danny Fulgencio)

How come, three years after the completion of the South Portland addressing project, there are still street signs within the new South Portland sextant with the “SW” prefix on the street signs? —Annoyed Driver

After three weeks of listening to folks gripe about potholes, it’s refreshing to hear from someone whose biggest complaint about Portland’s streets is a small pocket of out-of-date signage. That said, there’s no way I can focus on your mote of a question in the face of the giant plank of controversy that is your use of the term “sextant.”

Just in case any retired clipper ship captains are reading this, the word “sextant” in this context does not refer to the navigational instrument that launched the Age of Sail, but rather to one of the compass-defined sections of Portland: North, Northeast, Northwest, Southeast, Southwest and now South. Since one of four sections of an area is a quadrant, the reasoning goes, one of six sections should be called a sextant.

I admit, Annoyed, that at first I assumed you were just an insufferable pedant (my favorite kind!) showing off your command of Latin. It turns out, however, that city officials have actually been repping “sextant” as the official term since the creation of South Portland in 2020. (They acknowledge that some Portlanders may still prefer “quadrant,” which they say they’ll continue to “informally recognize.”)

It’s true that in geometry, where “quadrant” refers to a quarter of a circle, a sixth of a circle can be called a sextant. But “quadrant” has also come to mean one of four parts more generally; “sextant” hasn’t. Not even the Oxford English Dictionary—which has three citations for the word “zarf”—could find a precedent for a broader definition of “sextant.”

Moreover, where was this fetish for arithmetic precision for the 88 or so years we were blithely using the word “quadrant” to refer to our five—not four—addressing areas? By this model we should have called them “quintants” for that whole time. (Though I think it’s pretty obvious why we didn’t.)

This is not to say that “quadrant” doesn’t suck. We need a better word. Borough? Ward? Arrondissement? I’m open to suggestions. But the clock is ticking because charter reform is about to give us city council…districts? Zones? (Astrolabes?) They’ll need a name for them. We should grab a good one before they do, or we may find there’s nothing better than “sextant” extant.

Questions? Send them to dr.know@wweek.com.

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