The Universe of Discourse

Mon, 04 Dec 2006

A couple of weeks ago I was over at a friend's house, and was trying to explain to her two-year-old daughter which way to turn the knob on her Etch-a-Sketch. But I couldn't tell her to turn it clockwise, because she can't tell time yet, and has no idea which way is clockwise.

It occurs to me now that I may not be giving her enough credit; she may know very well which way the clock hands go, even though she can't tell time yet. Two-year-olds are a lot smarter than most people give them credit for.

Anyway, I then began wonder what "clockwise" and "counterclockwise" were called before there were clocks with hands that went around clockwise. But I knew the answer to that one: "widdershins" is counterclockwise; "deasil" is clockwise.

Or so I thought. This turns out not to be the answer. "Deasil" is only cited by the big dictionary back to 1771, which postdates clocks by several centuries. "Widdershins" is cited back to 1545. "Clockwise" and "counter-clockwise" are only cited back to 1888! And a full-text search for "clockwise" in the big dictionary turns up nothing else. So the question of what word people used in 1500 is still a mystery to me.

That got me thinking about how asymmetric the two words "deasil" and "widdershins" are; they have nothing to do with each other. You'd expect a matched set, like "clockwise" and "counterclockwise", or maybe something based on "left" and "right" or some other pair like that. But no. "Widdershins" means "the away direction". I thought "deasil" had something to do with the sun, or the day, but apparently not; the "dea" part is akin to dexter, the right hand, and the "sil" part is obscure. Whereas the "shins" part of "widdershins" does have something to do with the sun, at least by association. That is, it is not related historically to the sun, except that some of the people using the word "widdershins" were apparently thinking it was actually "widdersun". What a mess. And the words have nothing to do with each other anyway, as you can see from the histories above; "widdershins" is 250 years older than "deasil".

The OED also lists "sunways", but the earliest citation is the same as the one for deasil.

Anyway, I did not know any of this at the time, and imagined that "deasil" meant "in the direction of the sun's motion". Which it is; the sun goes clockwise through the sky, coming up on the left, rising to its twelve-o'-clock apex, and then descending on the right, the way the hands of a clock do. (Perhaps that's why the early clockmakers decided to make the hands of the clock go that way in the first place. Or perhaps it's because of the (closely related) reason that that's the direction that the shadow on a sundial moves.)

And then it hit me that in the southern hemisphere, the sun goes the other way: instead of coming up on the left, and going down on the right, the way clock hands do, it comes up on the right and goes down on the left. Wowzers! How bizarre.

I'm a bit sad that I figured this out before actually visiting the southern hemisphere and seeing it for myself, because I think I would have been totally freaked out on that first morning in New Zealand (or wherever). But now I'm forewarned that the sun goes the wrong way down there and it won't seem so bizarre when I do see it for the first time.

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