Circular Reasoning

Here’s a question that seems kind of weird, but I figured why not throw it out there and see what comes up.

What were the rotational directions clockwise and counterclockwise known as before there were clocks?
(For that matter, when were clocks first used?)

“I don’t want to achieve immortality through my work… I want to achieve it through not dying.”
– Woody Allen

Sundialwise and antisundialwise? :wink:

“To the right” and “to the left”
“This way” and “that way”
“tighty” and “loosey”

How about “deasil” (clockwise) and “widdershins” (counter-clockwise)?

Mjollnir is probably right. According to Antony Aveni’s “Empires of Time” (the second time I’ve cited that book today – sorry), the clock face is analagous to the sky. The hour hand, representing the sun, rises in the morning on the left side (East, if you are facing the equator from the north), reaches it’s peak at noon, and then slides down the right/west side.

“Deasil” means “with the sun” and “widdershins” means “against the sun” according to Random Word of the Day:

“northerntoiletflush” and “southerntoiletflush”

Back off, man. I’m a scientist.

Right hand thread and left hand thread. :wink:

From Merriam Webster:

Main Entry: wid·der·shins
Pronunciation: 'wi-d&r-sh&nz
Function: adverb
Etymology: Middle Low German weddersinnes, from Middle High German widersinnes, from widersinnen to go against, from wider back against (from Old High German widar) + sinnen to travel, go; akin to Old High German sendan to send – more at WITH, SEND
Date: 1513
: in a left-handed, wrong, or contrary direction : COUNTERCLOCKWISE – compare DEASIL

Main Entry: dea·sil
Pronunciation: 'dE-z&l
Function: adverb
Etymology: Scottish Gaelic deiseil; akin to Latin dexter right hand
Date: 1771

It appears the writer on the Randomhouse link above has taken some liberty with the definition of these two words. Seeking to equate the motion of the sun with the right or left hand depends on which direction you are facing, and can hardly be said to be a definitive method for denoting rotary motion. (Here we go again with the right-hand rule ‘paradox’ crapola).

I might add, the shadow of a gnomon in the northern hemisphere rotates clockwise in relation to its base, but just the opposite in the southern hemisphere no matter which direction you are facing.

But the killer for the “against the sun” theory is, both of these words antecede the invention of the spring-wound dial clock, circa 1500 in Germany. It’s interesting to note the concept of widdershins is dated 1513 German. I suggest the word was created to denote the anti-clockwise direction, just like “counterclockwise” was in the English language. The Gaelic word deasil apparently means nothing more than the dictionary definition, and the Latin root has nothing whatsoever to do with the sun but everything to do with a clock face.

In my opinion, there were no words for CW or
CCW before the invention of the clock - such words would have been meaningless. The Randomhouse dude is telling fairy tales.

Let the battle of the dictionaries be joined! :wink:

I suspect that we may never be able to set this clearly to rest. I’m not sure what liberties Nickrz thinks the Random House author has taken. The OED indicates that widdirsyns was used in 1513 to mean “the wrong way.” However, in 1545 it was spelled widersonnis to indicate “against the direction of the sun.” (The OED specifically links the relationship of sonnis to sun.) On the other hand, 1545 was certainly subsequent to the invention of the clock with the hour hand, so the possiblity that widersonnis represented the concept of “moving clockwise” cannot be ruled out (even if the reference was to the sun instead of the clock hand).

However, I will take issue with Nickrz:

For any culture that arose prior to the voyages of de Gamba, Magellan, and their seafaring buddies, the idea that the sun could move from right to left was absurd. (One of the earliest pieces of evidence we have that the Phoenicians probably circumnavigated Africa is that Herodotus (I think) ridiculed them for claiming that the sun began to move from left to right in the sky.)

People can easily accept the concept of a spherical earth without coming to an understanding of the ramifications of that concept. No part of the Eurasian continent extends South of the Equator. Africa was not penetrated beyond Ethiopia by Europeans (or by Arabs who wrote works read by Europeans) until the eighteenth century. The voyagers who sailed around Africa and South America certainly noted the difference, but I do not recall that the idea made a big splash back in Europe. (How many people on this MB–who include quite a few bright folks–actually realize that the sun moves right to left South of the Equator? {GuanoLad, put your hand down.} )The idea of solar motion in Europe, prior to the sixteenth century would always be expressed as the direction left-to-right.


What do spring-wound clocks have to do with anything? Mechanical clocks are much older than that.

Yes, the story about Herodotus is true.

John W. Kennedy
“Compact is becoming contract; man only earns and pays.”
– Charles Williams

The “spring wound” is just a reference to the specific item that was produced about 1500. The significance of that (spring wound) clock was that it had an hour hand. The clocks that were developed during the 1300’s did not have faces, being used only to sound their chimes (glocken in German) to let the people in the abbey or the city know what hour it was.

The spring wound device had a face with an hour hand and could be kept by any (rich) person in their home.

The clocks (glocken) prior to 1500 would not have contributed anything to this discussion, since there was nothing to look at and no “clockwise” display.


(Minute hands were developed around 1670.)

My Webster’s Third New International shows no such etymology for the word widdershins. Nothing to indicate the root words ever changed, or that it was ever spelled widdersonnis.

I’ll choose to believe the simple, logical explanation for the derivation of a word that means counterclockwise. A word that did not appear in spoken language until after the appearance of the clock dial. After all, the sun had been traveling in such wise for a long time, but they never used that word to describe its motion.

I’ll bow to Tom’s superior wisdom on the right-to-left motion of the sun. Or was that left-to-right? I always get confused when a “direction” depends on which “direction” I’m facing. I suggest the reason clock hands travel in the direction they do is because of the sundial gnomon shadow I cited earlier. Of course, this depends on you being in the northern hemisphere, but does not depend on which of the earth’s poles you are facing.

(Which is why the Webster’s Third New International is a very nice book (and will probably be quite up-to-date on 20th century usage when it is re-issued as the Fourth, but for serious history, you have to go to the OED.)

I think you make a valid argument, in general, regarding the idea that clock hands followed gnomon shadows and I find it indicative that both “clockwise” and “widdershins” came into use after the invention of a clock with a mechanically moved hand.

I reacted to your statement regarding “which way” we look at the sun only because I suspect that all the speakers in the sixteenth century of any of the languages we are discussing would have had only “one way” to look at the sun–for them it always moved left-to-right (to a normal visioned person standing upright looking at the sun, instead of looking over their shoulder at it:::sigh:: :).


Dial clocks (driven by floats and dripping water) go back to the Romans.

John W. Kennedy
“Compact is becoming contract; man only earns and pays.”
– Charles Williams

My memory of Roman waterclocks was that they used a graduated cylinder, rather than a sundial-like face.

To the point of the current discussion on this thread:
Were Roman clocks in use by any representative portion of Europe during the 15th and 16th centuries?
Did the Romans have a word that specifically meant “clockwise” (or any word that specifically meant “proceding in a circle following a specific direction”)?

The Romans, the Chinese, and several other cultures developed mechanical (usually water powered) time pieces (the Roman word was horologium–hour teller); a Greek actually had one that used gears (Ktepsios?). That I am aware of, in Europe, only the sundial used a circle around which a pointer indicated the time prior to 1500.
(Clocks aren’t my specialty, so I am open to correction, but I just don’t recall device in Medieval Europe that would have provided a word for “clockwise.”)


Oh, come on Nickrz; you really think that before the invention of the clock, nobody ever noticed that there were two directions a round object (cart wheel, water wheel, wind mill, etc.) could rotate? I find it hard to believe that nobody ever had a reason to refer to these differences, and hence needed to have a word to describe them.


“Believe those who seek the truth.
Doubt those who find it.” --Andre Gide

Of course, I did not say nobody ever noticed the two directions of rotary motion before the clock came along. But without a set standard for comparison, such words (if they existed at all) were apparently meaningless enough to have been lost in the mists of antiquity. I suspect the concept was expressed as “This wheel runs the other way from that wheel.” Which is by nature meaningless to the man who cannot see either wheel in motion. Any word invented to describe the above scenario would suffer the same fate.

Tom - Nobody ever accused my Webster’s of being a pea-shooter, but in an effort to avoid being lightly armed when the big guns are hauled out, I’ll have to take Mom’s chemotherapy money and buy me an OED.

Nickerz, I’m pretty sure that the current OED CD-ROM only costs a (significant) fraction of a chemo treatment.

IIRC, it’s around $400. (Amazon discounts it around 25%, but does not always have it in stock.) I’m still using my printed Compact OED (1919) with 1984 update (and huge magnifying glass).
If you’re flush and like printed books, Oxford University Press is currently running a special where their normal 20 volume, $3,000 set is going for $995. (When I get more money, I’ll upgrade to either the Compact Edition or the CD-ROM. I think my kids will be out of college by 2010.)