April 27th, 2016


Sunwise and Otherwise

I was very surprised to see that the OED's earliest entry for "clockwise" and "counterclockwise" is as late as 1888, with "anticlockwise" making its appearance a few years later.

I'd looked them up because I was musing on words like "widdershins" and "deasil". These two have always seemed an odd pairing. One's Germanic, the other Gaelic: one refers to the direction of the sun, the other to turning right. Although they are functional opposites, they get to the same (or in this case opposite) result via different workings and from different starting places too. What happened to their "true" opposites - the Germanic word meaning in the same direction as the sun, and the Gaelic word meaning turning left?

Also, neither is very common, and "deasil" in particular is a pretty rare word, so what (I asked myself) did people used to say before "clockwise" and "anticlockwise" came in, which obviously couldn't be before clocks with dials were invented? And, I added, did changing from the sun to a mechanical device as a way of orientating oneself ("orientating" is itself an interesting word in this context) reflect some wider epistemic shift from nature to technology as a source of reliable truth? I was expecting "clockwise" to show up some time around 1680. I couldn't imagine Robert Hooke not using it.

But I was 200 years out, and now I wonder what people were saying in the centuries between. Did they really have no use for the concept? How could you invent the steam engine or mine pumps or mass-produced screws without being to able to convey it - let alone walk round a church in a propitious direction?

(Of course I had to look it up in Japanese, where it turns out that clockwise is 右回り (migimawari - i.e. turning to right) and anti-clockwise is 反時計回り (hantokeimawari - i.e. turning against the clock). In other words, it exactly reproduces the inconsistency to be found in widdershins and deasil.)