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I've been hearing the words "deosil" used for clockwise and "widdershins" for anticlockwise, but where do they come from?

I'm told that "widdershins" is from a Scottish term meaning "against the way", is this correct?

I can't find any evidence of the origin of deosil. Where did it come from? Did it originally mean something else?

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4  
What about the etymonline explanation was untrustworthy? The wikipedia entry seems to follow it, and etymonline lists its sources somewhere. –  Mitch Mar 10 '12 at 15:42
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If OP doesn't want to trust Wiktionary, OED gives widdershins, withershins 2: In a direction contrary to the apparent course of the sun (considered as unlucky or causing disaster). And deasil, deiseal, deisal, deisul Righthandwise, towards the right; motion with continuous turning to the right, as in going round an object with the right hand towards it, or in the same direction as the hands of a clock, or the apparent course of the sun (a practice held auspicious by the Celts). –  FumbleFingers Mar 11 '12 at 22:14
    
I wonder if indigenous southern-hemisphere languages consider the opposte direction auspicious, since the "apparent direction of the sun" is opposite to that in the northern hemisphere. –  GEdgar Jun 16 '12 at 13:25
    
+1 to @FumbleFingers. Dictionaries should be your first reference for derivations. And thesauruses (thesauri?) should be your first reference for possible synonyms and antonyms, though I grant that recognizing which of the alternatives they list would most accurately express your meaning often requires being a native speaker. –  keshlam May 30 at 18:48
    
@keshlam: I'd never thought of it like that before, but you're absolutely right - some dictionaries are much more "non-native-speaker-friendly" than others. On average it seems to me that most online dictionaries list the currently most common meaning first, whereas OED works more in chronological order. The OED approach suits me better because I like to get a handle on entire whole history of a word. Oxford Dictionaries on line is better if you just want to know the likely sense of something you just read (since it'll usually be the first definition given). –  FumbleFingers May 30 at 20:07

3 Answers 3

up vote 2 down vote accepted

A simple Wikipedia search finds this.

Before clocks were commonplace, the terms "sunwise" and "deiseil" and even "doecil" from the Scottish Gaelic language and from the same root as the Latin "dexter" ("right") were used for clockwise. "Widdershins" or "withershins" (from Middle Low German "weddersinnes", "opposite course") was used for counterclockwise.

This seems to be consistent with Etymonline on deasil and widdershins.

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Wikipedia is not a reliable source, and there is no citation given for the origin of the phrase. Can you cite a source other then wikipedia? –  Benubird Mar 10 '12 at 14:14
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Added references to Etymonline. –  CesarGon Mar 10 '12 at 16:25
    
I'd suggest that as a pairing they were much more common after the late 20th century than before. Before clocks were commonplace people generally used right and left. –  Jon Hanna May 30 at 16:07
    
There's another english.SE question about this. People in Scotland used widdershins and deosil; people in Ireland may have used words from Irish Gaelic. Everybody else used right and left. –  Peter Shor May 30 at 17:43

deosil/deasil

Wiktionary shows this from Gaelic deiseil, which comes from Old Irish dessel.

widdershins

Middle Low German weddersinnes, from Middle High German widersinnes : wider, back (from Old High German widar; see wi- in Indo-European roots) + sinnes, in the direction of (from sin, direction, from Old High German; see sent- in Indo-European roots).

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Deosil comes from Gaelic (both the Irish and Scottish forms, found as deiseil, deiseal and deasal), and means "right", being the direction one turns when going clockwise.

The spelling deosil though is rarely seen prior to Gerard Gardner, and is likely just his choice of how to spell a dialect word that had no set spelling (the OED lists deasil, deiseal, deisal & deisul). It holds the distinction of being the sole example of several "witch words" that he claimed were "seemingly Celtic" or from "some older tongue" that weren't in fact plain (if obscure) English words of Saxon origin. Gardner ne cuþe a Sax word gif it bat him in þe ærs (I'm probably getting that Anglo-Saxon very wrong, but I'm still better than Gardner).

Anyway, it still exists in Irish and Scottish Gaelic as a word meaning right (as in not left), right (as in not wrong), south (which is on your right as you face the direction of sunrise) and as a general exclaimed blessing ("may things go right").

It has nothing to do with the direction of the sun, as is often suggested (with people even suggesting that it means anticlockwise when one is sufficiently south of the equator).

Withershins is in fact a merging of two separate words, with overlapping meanings. The most direct ancestor would be widdersyns (and similar other spellings) which as you say (and show from etymonline) means "against the way" and hence contrary to the "proper" direction.

However, there was also once widersonnis, withersones, etc. where the second part of the word comes from sonne, sunne (sun) rather than sinnen (way, journey, direction), as with:

Sayand the said Margarat Baffour vas ane huyr and ane wyche and that sche ȝeid widersonnis about mennis hous sark alane.

(Claimed the aforementioned Margaret Balfour was a whore and a witch and went [in the direction contrary to that of the sun] around men's houses [wearing only a light nightshirt or shift which is a shocking state of undress to the people who spoke Middle Lowland Scots, and so they apparently needed a word for it, though its a right bugger to translate into Contemporary Modern English]).

Of course, the two words were close in both sound and meaning, and in some cases when we have forms like widdershines it's not even clear which it is. As such, the two formerly separate words merged into each other, and so we have one of the interesting cases where a word as two separate (albeit similar) etymological roots.

The pairing of the two is another etymological case in itself. Deosil is Scottish Gaelic (as well as being Irish) and as such predominately found in the Highlands. Widdershins is Scots word, predominately found in the Lowlands. This oversimplifies a lot, and even from that oversimplification, there is nothing to say that a borrowing wouldn't have led to both being used by the same people (I grew up with a dialect with borrowings from both Irish and Ulster-Scots, so I certainly won't claim it doesn't happen), but just how likely one was to find the two paired is unclear. A lot of the written records we have of both words are from English writers who are pointing out the words new to them as matters of interest in themselves, as they travelled in Scotland, which muddies the waters further.

Whether the two were much found together or not in 16-19th Century Scotland, as a pairing used in Contemporary Modern English, they originate with the Wicca and other Mesopagan and Neopagan practices. So too does the idea that they are "the old way" of talking about clockwise and counter-clockwise; in truth the old words for those rotational directions were right and left.

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The opposite of "Widdershins" in Lowland Scots was "sonnegaitis/sungates". From the OED (1596): I find it wilbe ane deir yeir; the bled of the corne growis withersones; and quhan it growis sonegatis about, it wilbe ane gude chaip yeir. Of course, in England, you are correct that the words were left and right. –  Peter Shor Jun 2 at 22:38
    
@PeterShor I'd offer that that is the antonym of widdersonnis rather than widdersins, to the extent that they were once separate. It's not clear to me to what extent they were more popular than right and left even in Scots, though they would seem to have been the term used when the circular quality was remarked on (c.f. we would to this day say "turn to your right" more often than "turn clockwise" unless we were remarking upon the circle made). –  Jon Hanna Jun 2 at 23:34

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