Before there were clocks, what did people say to describe the clockwise and anti/counter-clockwise directions?

Whilst we're on the subject, when was the word "clockwise" first used?

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    Check out: englishforums.com/English/ClockwiseBeforeClocks/jgqnv/post.htm
    – Nieszka
    Commented Jun 21, 2012 at 14:17
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    See also: english.stackexchange.com/questions/60703/… Commented Jun 21, 2012 at 14:47
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    I don't have any support for this (hence the comment rather than answer), but I believe it was simply "right" and "left". The often-suggested "deasil" has not been shown to have been actually used much ("widdershins" was a tiny bit more common), and "sun-wise" doesn't really work, because if you're facing north, then the sun travels counter-clockwise.
    – Marthaª
    Commented Jun 21, 2012 at 19:06
  • For reference: mechanical clocks began to be in use by Churches in Europe around 1300, and spring-driven clocks and watches began to be in wide use from around 1500. Commented Jun 21, 2012 at 19:51
  • my guess: sundial-wise
    – iceman
    Commented Dec 21, 2014 at 18:44

5 Answers 5


Etymonline says that the word clockwise arose in 1870, much later than clocks. Before that, the word sunwise was used, but it appears to have been fairly rare.

There were words (e.g. deiseil and tuathail) for these concepts in the Celtic languages, since in Celtic cultures the directions clockwise and counterclockwise are quite important, but English seems not to have felt a great need for these concepts, and used sunwise on the rare occasions the concepts came up. All the pre-1850 Google books hits I can find for sunwise or sun-wise are describing Celtic, Hindu, ancient Roman, or American Indian customs. The earliest reference I can find on Google books for sunwise is 1775.

From The origin and history of Irish names of places, by Patrick Weston Joyce (1875):

Deisiol [desshul] is another derivative from deis, and signifies towards the right hand, or southwards. The Celtic people were—and are still—accustomed to turn sunwise, i.e. from left to right, in the performance of various rites, some of them religious, some merely superstitious, and the word deisiol was used to designate this way of turning.

If sunwise had been a common term at the time, or if there had been another commonly-understood word meaning clockwise, the author would not have felt the need to explain it by "i.e. from left to right".

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    @Martha: by left to right, the author means clockwise. In the Northern hemisphere, the sun goes clockwise around the sky, and this is quite noticeable when you are as far north as the British isles. It is rather hard to define clockwise in terms of left and right, and he does a terrible job of it. But if you stand in the center of a circle, clockwise is indeed left-to-right. Commented Jun 21, 2012 at 19:15
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    @Marthaª, in the northern hemisphere the sun causes shadows to rotate clockwise throughout the day. This effect is used in the creation of sun-dials.
    – zzzzBov
    Commented Jun 21, 2012 at 19:24
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    @zzzzBov: So maybe they might have said sundialwise and countersundialwise?
    – J.R.
    Commented Jun 22, 2012 at 2:25
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    The shadows on sundials move in the same direction as the sun does: clockwise in the northern hemisphere, and counterclockwise in the southern. Commented Sep 8, 2012 at 2:08
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    That's rather a botched explanation of deiseal and tuathal (to use their current spellings). In Ireland, when orienting oneself, one always traditionally faced east, towards the rising sun. Old Irish maps had the east where we have the north, too. Just like we consider north to be ‘up’ in our heads, so the Irish considered east to be ‘up’. Deas means, as the book says, ‘right’, but also logically ‘south’; tuath similarly means ‘left’ and ‘north’. Since these terms are relative not only to your own body, but also to the compass, adjectives derived from them are obvious choices. Commented Oct 16, 2013 at 18:51

Well, the OED dates withershins from 1513 in the sense of "against the usual direction", and from 1545 in the sense of "against the sun's direction; but it does mark it as "dial, chiefly Sc.", i.e. dialect, chiefly Scottish. It seems unlikely that it was in general use before the 20th century.

And the only synonym I know for clockwise, deasil appears to have been borrowed from Gaelic in the 18th century: the OED gives it from 1771, but again the examples are mostly from Scottish sources.

So though these words existed, I don't think either of them was in general use in English until well after clockwise and its congeners.

Clockwise and counterclockwise it dates from 1888, with anticlockwise ten years later. (Anticlockwise has been preferred over counterclockwise in Britain since 1940, according to Google ngrams, but counterclockwise has just caught it up).


Most often, right, with left being the most common term for the opposite.

In some specific contexts, these can seem abiguous, but only when actually trying to consider the turning without a bias to either part of the clockwise- or counterclockwise-turning object. This doesn't actually come up all that often.

In order to ourselves turn around something clockwise, we turn to our right. If we view a rotating object along its axis, and bias our perspective to favour the top (which we tend to do naturally), we will say it is moving to the right.

It's ironically clocks themselves that give our main exception, since a clock's hands are rotating on a point close to one end, it's more reasonable that we would perceive a hand near the 6 as moving to the left, one near the 3 as moving down, and so on. But overall, it is more common for rotating objects to rotate on an axis closer to their middle.

We also have more rotating pieces of machinery where their direction is important, than people once did.

And so, right and left are still commonly used as such today. There is no confusion in how to operate a steering wheel, because we're well aquainted with the idea that clockwise and right correspond. We remember what way the most common sorts of screws and other rotating fixtures work as "righty-tighty, lefty-loosey" not "clockwisey-stuckwisey, anticlockwisey-eh, the other one".

Now, some words have been suggested as answers, and they do indeed have those meanings (among others), but they were relatively rare.

Sunwise is the one straightforward one, means what it says, (and hence corresponds only if you are far enough north of the equator to notice a clockwise orientation to the sun's movements), but is relatively rare.

Widdershins has two separate etymological roots.

The main one is widder meaning "back against" and sinnen meaning "way", and so widdershins means in the wrong way. With a bias toward turning right (which is also why we have the same word for right, as for "correct") this would generally have meant turning left or counter-clockwise, but in a given context could mean the opposite.

Widersonnis used to exist as a separate word, explicitly meaning "against the sun":

Sayand the said Margarat Baffour vas ane huyr and ane wyche and that sche ȝeid widersonnis about mennis hous sark alane (Elgin Records, 1545).

Or in present-day English:

Claimed that the aforementioned Margaret Balfour, was a whore and a witch, and that she went [in the opposite direction to sunwise] about men's houses in only her shift.*

Widersonnis died out, because it was close to widdershins in sound and 99% of the time in meaning, and so it was absorbed into it. However, it did differ in being more specifically about the clockwise direction (as long as you're far enough north).

Deosil, deasil, and other spellings have been used in some dialects of English, but were not very common. Notably, the word in Irish and Scottish Gaelic that it comes from does not specifically mean "clockwise" or "sunwise". It means "right", "correct", "south" (on the basis that if you're facing the direction of sunrise, the south is to your right) and only means "clockwise" for the same reason that right can in English. The spelling deosil is common today, but not found any earlier than the middle of the 20th Century - long after clockwise was a commonplace.

The pairing of deosil and widdershins as antonyms is also modern, owing to their being commonly used in modern paganism.

Ironicallly, deosil is often explained to be "sunwise" and hence to mean counter-clockwise if you are in the southern hemisphere. As seen above this is not historically the case, and this again is a late 20th Century view, coming from the word's use in modern paganism, particularly in Australia and New Zealand (where the distinction is obviously considered more important than in the New Forest and London covensteads of the first groups to use the pair of words in this way).

So, while we did have other words with such senses, the most commonly used and most widely used in terms of dialect, where right and left.

*The difficulty in translation is that the present day doesn't have quite the same amount of scandalous reaction to sark alane. While it wouldn't be as shocking as nudity, and perhaps appropriate to see a sister or daughter in such a state of undress, it would still have been more shocking than today. "In her nighty" would just sound funny, but remember that it was just over a hundred years ago that riots were triggered by the word shift upon audiences in Dublin and New York hearing "It's Pegeen I'm seeking only and what'd I care if you brought me a drift of chosen females, standing in their shifts itself maybe, from this place to the Eastern World?" (John Millington Synge, "Playboy of the Western World", 1907).

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    "In order to ourselves turn around something clockwise, we turn to our right"—if you are approaching a roundabout and need to go clockwise, I hope you don't turn right! Commented Mar 6, 2014 at 1:37
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    @Kundor of course I do; I turn left (anti-clockwise) onto the roundabout, and then turn right (clockwise) around the round about until the exit I want, when I then turn left (anti-clockwise) to leave the roundabout. (Unless I'm travelling somewhere where people drive on the right-hand side of the road, and go anti-clockwise around roundabouts, of course).
    – Jon Hanna
    Commented Mar 6, 2014 at 9:54

Deosil and widdershins, for one instance. (For clarity: deosil is clockwise, widdershins is counterclockwise.)

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    But did people actually use these terms in everyday conversation?
    – Mitch
    Commented Jun 21, 2012 at 17:01
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    These are borrowed Celtic terms, and fairly recently as others have commented. Commented Jun 21, 2012 at 19:22
  • @Mark: I expect the Irish have been using deisiol since they started speaking English, and that deasil and widdershins have been used in Scotland for centuries. But they only recently entered the language of non-Celtic English speakers. In this book the word widdershins is used (in a section which is clearly written in Scots English) in 1681--the date Google assigns the book is earlier, but wrong. Commented Jun 21, 2012 at 19:32
  • In fact, the section including the word widdershins is transcribed from a 1590 document. Commented Jun 21, 2012 at 19:40
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    @MarkBeadles there's nothing Celtic about widdershins, which is as saxon as can be. Deosil was a rare and relatively recent dialect word in English until the 1950s when its being used in Wicca slowly moved it into wider use (and that spelling, which isn't found anywhere I can find earlier than Gardner). Gardner did say most words he associated with Wicca other than Wicca itself were Celtic, but he was wrong on all of them but deosil, (halch, dwale, warrik & ganch all dialect words of Old English origin) and that only by chance.
    – Jon Hanna
    Commented Jan 31, 2013 at 12:15

As per @Nieszka link, "sunwise" would have been the most common, but also "widdershins" and "deasil". This seemed to serve them well enough, where most of their needs could be described with reference to the ground.

The problems of trying to work out which way is which when, for example, you are upside down were not major issues for them. They only really needed it for plotting on the ground, and working where the direction was clear.

According to Merriam, it was first used in 1888.

  • Google books has a use which seems pretty clearly to be from 1870. Commented Jun 21, 2012 at 15:45
  • I thought 1888 seemed too late. I suspect that there might be earlier still references. So probably sometime from 1850 onwards. Commented Jun 21, 2012 at 17:48

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