View Full Version : Anticlockwise - medieval terminology?

02-27-2015, 08:02 PM
I'm trying to describe an anticlockwise movement, but am writing a piece set in the fifteenth century.

My problem is that the OED doesn't record any examples of the words clockwise, anticlockwise, or counterclockwise appearing until the late nineteenth century, which I find slightly surprising.

Widdershins doesn't appear to have developed the meaning of anticlockwise until the twentieth century, the late-medieval meaning being, rather, "in the opposite direction than usual".

It's not especially important, but I'm assuming that because of its ritual and practical importance (casting spells, building castle tower staircases) they must have had the concept - has anyone come across a period word for it?

02-27-2015, 08:14 PM
Possibly widdershins anyway because it means anything in a contrary direction? What is the application?

02-27-2015, 08:21 PM
Maybe you could call it "sunwise", or "sunward" since counterclockwise movement is east-to-west. Or replace the clock with some other natural phenomenon.

Or just add primitive clocks to your fantasy world that resemble modern clocks, but are powered differently. This way clockwise is an acceptable term in your world.

Alessandra Kelley
02-27-2015, 08:35 PM
"Widdershins" (or "withershins") is not earlier than the sixteenth century and just means wrong way around.

Frankly, I suspect the "ritual importance" of the direction dates to feverish speculation by Victorian-era romantics and amateur armchair folklorists. Certainly I haven't seen any indications from genuine reliable earlier sources that the direction something turns was held to have occult significance.

02-27-2015, 08:54 PM
The term "clockwise" (and obviously its antonym) obviously couldn't have existed prior to the invention of the clockface with rotating hands familiar today. A history article I looked up suggests, though I couldn't find precise information, that the earliest such mechanical clocks with those kinds of displays date from the 1300s. Which is late medieval.


02-27-2015, 09:52 PM
A sundial could provide a reference prior to clocks.

02-28-2015, 12:48 AM
Maybe you could call it "sunwise", or "sunward" since counterclockwise movement is east-to-west. Or replace the clock with some other natural phenomenon.

"Sunwise" isn't recorded until 1865; an earlier variant "sunways" in 1774 is also a bit late; "sunward" means facing the sun.

"Sunganges" is an Old English word that means moving in the direction of the sun--maybe it could have survived locally wherever your story is set. "Sungates" means the same, but isn't recorded until 1597.

"Rightsomes" and "leftsomes" are recorded in 1398 for "in a rightward/leftward direction." Or they could have used the Latin "dextrorsum" and "sinistrorsum."

But otherwise, "circle left" is a possibility.

02-28-2015, 03:05 AM
I'm thinking that clockwise and counterclockwise didn't exist at all (not as the discrete concepts we know) prior to the creation of clocks with hands. And those turn as they do (again, blatant speculation) because they mimic what sundials did for Europeans.

The precursor word probably does not, technically, exist.

Although... AntiClockWise is now stuck in my head as a title seeking a story. :ROFL:

02-28-2015, 03:08 AM
Sinister for anti-clockwise and dexter for clockwise. They were used to describe planetary motion and in heraldry around then.

02-28-2015, 09:06 AM
Turn it to the left

02-28-2015, 06:05 PM
Great discussion - thanks guys. I had it a couple of times, both physically for some blocking (circle left will do nicely, and I really like leftsomes so will try that too) and ritually (So thanks Alessandra Kelley for making me realise that I'd accepted the idea of Widdershins ritual uncritically!).

Deb Kinnard
02-28-2015, 06:05 PM
If you're using etymoonline or some similar source for when a word was "first used," bear in mind that such sites only reference the word's first use in written form. I don't rely on this as absolute, since so many words were in general use long before they appeared on a printed or manuscript page. Anyone really know how old "and" is? Before it appears in a Saxon manuscript written in Old English, I mean? There you are.