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We commonly say right and left in lieu of clockwise and counterclockwise. Is this somehow a consequence of the fact that most people are right-handed? Or is this an accidental feature of English, which is not shared with the other languages?

According to Wikipedia, the word deasil, which is a synonym for clockwise, derives from Latin "dexter" (which means "right"). But this does not explain the association between linear and circular directions.

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – tchrist Aug 4 '17 at 23:56
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    I don't get it...does 'right' mean 'clockwise'? I don't think so. I certainly don't use 'right' in place of 'clockwise'. I think your assumption is wrong. – Mitch Aug 5 '17 at 21:19
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    @Mitch - Righty-tighty, lefty-loosey. – Hot Licks Aug 7 '17 at 2:08
  • @Mitch: I don't want to "out" you, if you're trying to keep your age secret, but I guess you're old enough to remember a time when clocks were round and had hands.  The kids these days have never seen a clock that wasn't digital, so they don't use words like "clockwise" because they don't understand what that means. Also, when you're communicating by text message, words of 4 or 5 letters are preferable to those of 9 or 16. – Scott Aug 13 '17 at 1:56
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It has nothing to do with handedness, and everything to do with the vertical aspect of people’s point of view.  Most things that we touch are below the level of our eyes — knobs (e.g., on radios and TVs), dials (e.g., on telephones and combination locks), doorknobs, screws, etc. — so we look down at them, so we see the top.  When we turn something clockwise, the top moves to the right (and vice versa).

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If you stand in one place, and turn yourself clockwise, you are turning towards your right hand.

If you are following directions, and somebody says "turn right", you turn yourself clockwise so that you are facing the direction you want to go.

I think this has to be the derivation. If you watch a carousel that is turning clockwise, the part you can see is moving to the left. And it's not clear at all whether you should use "left" and "right" to describe which way you should turn a screwdriver (except for the fact that we know "clockwise" is "right").

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    This is a plausible explanation. – Boris Bukh Aug 4 '17 at 14:18
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    Doesn't answer the question; merely restates in another form the condition that the querent uses to establish the context for the question. @YosefBaskin commented on the question with more useful information. – Jeff Zeitlin Aug 4 '17 at 14:18
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    +1 // If you turn yourself clockwise, you are turning towards your right hand. What if you imagine yourself from below instead of from above? – RaceYouAnytime Aug 4 '17 at 14:36
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    @RaceYouAnytime: I happened to watch a talk on Youtube last night where the speaker was talking about chirality in Nature. She passed a number of gastropod shells round the audience, intending that everyone should quickly recognize the massive preference for "right-handedness" in such spiral shells. But it became a bit farcical because many people in the audience weren't clear about which way up ("pointy end" up or down) to hold the shell before noting whether the opening was on the left or the right. – FumbleFingers Aug 4 '17 at 14:50
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    Besides, anything else would be sinister. – Hot Licks Aug 7 '17 at 2:09
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My reservations about the clarity of the question weigh sufficiently that I should first list and explain those reservations before answering the question as I understand it.

  • 'Right' does not mean 'clockwise'. That the words sometimes mean, in absolute and relative terms respectively, the same direction, is happenstance at most, accidence or coincidence at least. No etymological or necessary semantic connection between the terms exists, so far as I can determine.
  • Similarly, while some may say "right and left in lieu of clockwise and counterclockwise" (Original Post, OP), I am not one of them. I am much more likely to go the other way around (say 'clockwise' in explaining 'right' etc.), but if pressed by somebody who does not know which is which, will usually immediately retreat to gestures (pointing), a known relative direction ("toward downtown" for example), or another absolute direction ("toward the setting sun"), rather than using 'right' or 'left' to define 'clockwise' or 'counterclockwise' or the other way around.
  • Wikipedia notwithstanding, 'deasil' (var.) is not usually thought to "derive from" Latin dexter. Rather, Gaelic deas and Latin dexter are cognate, where 'cognate' means

    Of words: Coming naturally from the same root, or representing the same original word, with differences due to subsequent separate phonetic development....

    OED, cognate, adj., sense A2a.

    Perhaps a side note is that Wikipedia's entry for "Clockwise" is...chronologically imprecise (to put it politely). Logically speaking, the claim in the entry that before "clocks were commonplace, the terms 'sunwise' and 'deasil'...were used for clockwise" suffers from omitting to mention the period before clocks existed, that is, the period when no word was used for 'clockwise'.

  • An explanation of "the association between linear and circular directions" (OP) does not seem pertinent to the question. Supposing the question conflates the exact geometrical definition of 'circle',

    In Geom. defined as a plane figure bounded by a single curved line, called the circumference, which is everywhere equally distant from a point within, called the centre. But often applied to the circumference alone, without the included space.

    OED, circle, n., sense I1a, emphasis mine.

    with the frequent application of that definition to the circumference alone, then the 'linear' direction is not distinct from the 'circular' direction; both are lines, whether or not one is curved. If, on the other hand, the conflation of the technical definition of 'circle' and the usual application of that definition to the curved line alone was not intended, but rather the distinction between a line and a plane, it is not clear to me how, or if, that distinction involves 'to the right' and 'clockwise'.

  • Supposing that the question intends to ask "why is clockwise to the right?", it is not an English language question, but rather a historical question that can be answered (albeit simplistically) with (a) the observation that 'clockwise' is not always or necessarily 'to the right', as evidenced by clocks with the opposite motion, along with (b) a historical sketch of the development of clocks in the Northern Hemisphere from sundials themselves developed in accordance with prevalent religious beliefs and practices.

Having noted those reservations, my understanding of the question becomes something like this:

How is it that 'to the right' on the horizontal plane came to be projected onto the vertical plane?

To my surprise, a semi-linguistic answer based on etymology can be offered.

That answer lies in the dual meaning of the Gaelic root of 'deasil', deas: deas means both 'right-hand' and 'south':

... < deas right hand, south, in Old Irish dess, des, Welsh dehau, cognate with Latin dexter, Greek δεξιός. (The meaning of the latter part is unknown.)

OED, extract from the etymology given for deasil | deiseal, adv. and n.

OED's first attestation of 'deasil' (in the form 'deasoil') is a quote from the first edition (1771) of Thomas Pennant's A Tour in Scotland MDCCLXIX (MDCCLXIX = 1769). Here is the quote from Pennant in context (fourth edition, 1776):

Druidism having been the form of religion in this country [Scotland] before Christianity, the people still retain some superstitious customs of that Pagan religion...at marriages and baptisms they make a procession around the church, Deasoil, i.e. sunways, because the sun was the immediate object of the Druids' worship.

This might seem to beg the question: why was the procession to the right on the horizontal plane considered "sunways", when the sun's apparent movement is on a vertical plane?

The answer is that 'sunways' describes the direction an observer in the Northern Hemisphere turns when observing the sun's passage across the sky; observers of that movement, whether standing, sitting or lying down, must turn at least their eyes to the south (deas) and to the right (also deas). Thus the horizontal plane of the observer's motion translates to the vertical plane of the sun's movement.

Part 2 of Pennant's A Tour in Scotland MDCCLXXII (MDCCLXXII = 1772) sheds a little more light on the issue. What OED describes as "unknown", that is, the meaning of the '-sil' or '-il' portion of 'deasil' (see OED etymology shown above), Pennant confidently translates as deriving from "Syl, the sun". See the daggered note in this clipping:

deasil 1772, 1776

If Pennant's derivation is correct (which, notably, OED does not confirm), the horizontal plane implied by 'to the right' is joined with the vertical plane of the sun's movement in the two parts of the word describing both, 'deasil':

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).

OED, deasil | deiseal, adv. and n., emphasis mine.

An earlier attestation than the first, 1771 quotation provided by OED agrees in substance with Pennant's derivation of the second part of 'deasil' ('-sil'), and confirms the specifics of the belief system described by Pennant. The 1726 publication A Collection of Several Pieces of Mr. John Toland provides this narrative (bold emphasis mine), where 'deasil' appears in the form 'deiseal':

The vulgar in the Ilands do still show a great respect for the Druid's houses, and never come to the antient sacrificeing and fire-hallowing Carns, but they walk three times round them from east to west, according to the course of the Sun. This sanctify'd tour or round by the south, is call'd (91) Deiseal as the unhallow'd contrary one by the north (92) Tuapholl. But the Irish and Albanian Scots do not derive the first (as a certain friend of mine imagin'd) from Di-sul, which signifies Sunday in Armorican British, as Dydh-Syl in Welsh and De-zil in Cornish do the same; but from (93) Deas, the right (understanding hand) and Soil, one of the antient names of the Sun, the right hand in this round being ever next the heap. The Protestants in the Hebrides are almost as much addicted to the Deisiol, as the Papists. Hereby it may be seen, how hard it is to eradicate inveterate Superstition. This custom was us'd three thousand years ago, and God knows how long before, by their ancestors the antient Gauls of the same religion with them; who turn'd round right-hand-wise, when they worship'd their Gods, as (94) Atheneus informs us out of Posidonius a much elder writer.

(91) Dextrorsum.
(92) Sinistrorsum.
(93) Item Deis.
(94) [Illegible in reproduction of MS.]

  • The sun only moves purely vertically at the equator. At the North Pole, it moves purely horizontally. In England, Scotland and Ireland, its horizontal movement around the sky is quite apparent. – Peter Shor Aug 13 '17 at 10:21
  • @PeterShor, yes...I was inclined to lard this answer with qualifiers ("semi-horizontal" and "more-vertical"). Maybe I will yet, given your suggestion. It might not be productive: the sun's movement is not purely horizontal or vertical anywhere over a long time-course, as the Druids were aware. – JEL Aug 13 '17 at 16:52
  • Not purely vertical over a long time-course? It's not purely vertical over a single day. In the summer in England, it rises in the northeast, moves around to the south, while never getting that high in the sky, and sets in the northwest. Traveling clockwise around the sky. – Peter Shor Aug 13 '17 at 18:55
  • @PeterShor, You brought up the "purely" with reference to the sun's apparent movement at the equator and the poles. My response is that it doesn't move "purely" on the horizontal or the vertical plane at those places either; there the deviation is more seasonal, although it can be observed in day-to-day plane variations, whether the observer is at the equator, or the poles, or anywhere. Hence other linguistic artifacts with similar origins: 'tropic', 'solstice', 'equinox', etc. Nothing is pure in the heavens or on earth...but the earth supplies the horizontal, and the heavens the vertical. – JEL Aug 13 '17 at 20:07
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Based on the conversation in comments to the question: There is a long history of timekeeping to explain the association between "clockwise" and "right"; admittedly, most people at present don't think about it; they just accept the definition.

Most of the dominant cultures on Earth derive from origins in the northern hemisphere; this is important to understanding relevant natural phenomena. One of the earliest timekeeping devices was the sundial; this used a projecting object (the "gnomon") to cast a shadow which would move as the sun did to show the time of day. If you were to use yourself as the gnomon, stand facing north, and watch your shadow move, it would move from your left at sunrise, around you to the north, and finish at sunset on your right - in other words, your shadow was moving from left to right.

When the first "modern" mechanical analog clocks (clocks with hands, not some other sort of indication) were built, they were designed to mimic this motion (for reasons unknown, but it's not an unreasonable choice to make). If one of these clocks were to be laid on its back (and kept working somehow), and you were to stand at the center, the motion of the hands of the clock would follow the motion of your shadow.

Ultimately, this type of clock became ubiquitous, and gave rise to the term "clockwise", meaning "following the motion of the hands of the clock". Since the hands of the clock appear to move to the right, "clockwise" and "right" became associated, and are treated as interchangeable when referring to circular motion.

To be most correct, one shouldn't say "turn right" when giving directions, but "turn clockwise". However, when giving directions, "turn right" can also be viewed as "shorthand" for "turn to face to your right", which would involve turning clockwise in the normal case - thus reinforcing the association between "right" and "clockwise".

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    Load of rubbish. Noone taught me that "right is clockwise", it is instinctive. "Righty-tighty, lefty-loosey" works because of intuition. – AndyT Aug 4 '17 at 15:21
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    Do the languages of cultures in the southern hemisphere use "left" for "clockwise"? – Boris Bukh Aug 5 '17 at 1:31
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    @BorisBukh - No, because the mechanical clock that gave rise to the definition of clockwise was imported from northern-hemisphere-derived cultures. – Jeff Zeitlin Aug 5 '17 at 13:12
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    To be most correct, one shouldn't say “turn clockwise” when giving directions, but “turn right”. “Turn clockwise” makes sense only in the context of an overhead observer.  (The gopher under the ground beneath your feet would see it the other way.)  “Turn right” makes sense from the point of view of the traveler (unless they're walking on their hands, upside-down). – Scott Aug 7 '17 at 1:50

protected by tchrist Aug 4 '17 at 23:56

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