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Some of my recent reading has reminded me that German has two interesting expressions for “East” and “West” in the sense of two broad cultural and geographical regions. One can speak auf Deutsch of the Abendland and the Morgenland, the land of dawn and the land of twilight.

I admire these phrases, which are much more poetic than the plain English equivalents, and which remind the reader that they are metaphors. Replacing a geographical reference with an astronomical one gives the German phrase a different flavour. Yet while this discourse of east and west makes good rhetoric, I am not so sure that it is a wise choice for analysis. “East” and “West” can mean everything and therefore nothing, and because they are so fuzzy they encourage loose thinking. Sometimes they are defined politically, sometimes culturally, and sometimes to divide those whom the speaker likes from those whom the speaker dislikes. Even when scholars who speak of “the west” use a clear definition, the vagueness and mythic power of the phrase can confuse their audience.