In the context of wind direction, Wikipedia explains "northerly" as:

...a northerly wind blows from the north to the south.

But when describing the heading of a person or vehicle you would be going in a northerly direction if you were heading from South to North.

The two conflicting definitions are described here.

adj., adv., n., pl. -lies. adj.

  1. moving, directed, or situated toward the north.
  2. (esp. of a wind) coming from the north.

I believe the same applies to southerly, easterly, westerly.

How did this apparent contradiction come about? Is there a less-confusing alternative when describing the wind?

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    I would say that northerly is just an adjective meaning that something is north-related, be this from, to or like the north. – BladorthinTheGrey Sep 8 '16 at 16:07
  • Wouldn't that make more sense as "northy" or more sensible sounding "northern"? I thought the -ly suffix usually indicated an adverb. I know it doesn't always make sense, but I'd like it to! – James Bradbury Sep 8 '16 at 16:12
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    @JamesBradbury Since when does language have to make sense? – choster Sep 8 '16 at 16:36
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    The meteorologists I watch say that the wind is from the north at ten miles an hour. – Steven Littman Sep 9 '16 at 1:32

Winds are also, and perhaps more commonly, referred to by the name of the direction from which they blow (North wind, East wind and so on). I suspect that this is the original and that the -ly form is a later development.

The reason for this is that it is easier and more accurate to estimate the direction of a wind by facing into it rather than away from it so it made sense to refer to a wind by its apparent origin.

In terms of travel it is, again, more sensible and intuitive to speak of the direction we or our vehicles or vessels face as we travel; so we speak of 'going South', 'sailing West' and so on.

Once these conventions became established all other references to winds and travel directions would have to follow suit, otherwise it would be impossible to discuss either of them without becoming totally confused.

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    Can you add more to your answer to resolve the contradiction the OP identifies? Also while I suspect is all very good for a comment, could you includes one evidence or at least a backed-up argument? – BladorthinTheGrey Sep 8 '16 at 20:07
  • Perhaps I shouldn't have included the 'I suspect' part but it doesn't really affect my argument. My point is that a wind is given the name of the direction from which it appears to come because early people had to face into it to determine that direction. Similarly travel in a given direction is described by the direction one faces when travelling (unless one is rowing a boat). This facing in a given direction is the source of the apparently contradictory uses. – BoldBen Sep 9 '16 at 23:57
  • It comes from the days of sailing. For example, people sailed down to Maine from Boston because they sailed downwind from Boston. – ab2 Oct 9 '16 at 8:14
  • @ab2 In the British context the terms 'up' and 'down' originally described movement from 'more important' places to 'less important' ones. Thus movement towards London was regarded as 'up' and away from London was 'down'. For example there is a late 19th century song with the phrase 'from Yarmouth down to Scarborough' which confuses a lot of people because Scarborough is north of Yarmouth and, therefore, higher up the map! The railways followed this convention and speak of the 'up' and 'down' lines and platforms. I don't know whether this convention is followed in the US. – BoldBen Oct 11 '16 at 8:44

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