An excellent post on this subject was written at Strange Maps: For many centuries, Europe was the vantage point from which the world was discovered, viewed and named. Columbus sailed west to arrive East in India, but instead stumbled on a new continent. It took a while for the confusion to lift, so the first name for America was the Indies, from 1555 on shifting to West Indies (when the mistake became increasingly apparent). About four decades later, the original Indies (i.e. India and South East Asia) started to be called the East Indies - to distinguish them more clearly from the West Indies. East and West were defined relative to Europe.
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