Unusual Word of the Day: Widdershins

Listening just now to a radio report of the counter-clockwise spinning Irene hurricane called to mind a night some years ago when I was lost in the Surrey darkness, trying to find the house of an English friend. My friend called me and said that I had made a mistake by turning left at the ring road, where I should have instead traveled “anti-clockwise”.

I was surprised at the term, which I had never heard before. Its meaning is transparent on its face, but what threw me off was that my friend didn’t use my mother’s word “widdershins”, which I knew came from her UK ancestors. To them, widdershins meant particularly walking around the outside of a church with the wall always to one’s left, which could bring the devil’s curse of bad luck.

I later learned that the word was apparently specific to the Scottish regions of my mother’s family, and never took hold in England. If you want to give “widdershins” a whirl so to speak, conversations about Irene today give you your chance.

Author: Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is the Esther Ting Memorial Professor of Psychiatry at Stanford University and an Honorary Professor of Psychiatry at Kings College Lonon. His research, teaching and writing have focused on addictive disorders, self-help organizations (e.g., breast cancer support groups, Alcoholics Anonymous), evaluation research methods, and public policy related to health care, mental illness, veterans, drugs, crime and correctional systems. Professor Humphreys' over 300 scholarly articles, monographs and books have been cited over ten thousand times by scientific colleagues. He is a regular contributor to Washington Post and has also written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Monthly, San Francisco Chronicle, The Guardian (UK), The Telegraph (UK), Times Higher Education (UK), Crossbow (UK) and other media outlets.

11 thoughts on “Unusual Word of the Day: Widdershins”

  1. The one frequent appearance of the word is in Terry Pratchett’s novels, which are set on a disc-shaped world instead of a spherical one. North, South, East and West are replaced by Hubward, Rimward, Turnwise and Widdershins. The latter two are indeed much nicer adn universal words than clockwise and anti/counter-clockwise

  2. I don’t get it. Does “anti-clockwise” or “counter-clockwise” mean that the clock goes from displaying “9:24” to “9:23”?

  3. Likewise, “counterclockwise” is the more familiar formation than “anticlockwise”. I can only remember “deiseal” and “widdershins” by converting them to clockwise and counter-.

    According to the Wikipedia entry on “widdershins”, it is cognate with the Germanic “against [the correct] sense”, which adds a level of meaning to Philip K. Dick’s Counterclock World.

  4. The shortest French translation is dans le sens contraire à celui des aiguilles d’une montre. However did French witches manage before there were clocks?

  5. I first recall coming accross this word in Tim POwers’ “Last Call”. It seems to be cropping up quite a bit lately in the fiction I’m reading. Hmmm.

  6. Hadn’t actually seen “widdershins” in that form until now, but I know I’ve seen it as “withershins,” which I think is the more usual literary form. At least more usual among British journalists, or was so, because I’d swear I’d seen it in the Guardian and I haven’t subscribed for quite a while now. OED’s entry is under “withershins” and earliest references are 16C. Apparently not specifically counter-clockwise but more like not the expected or usual way.

  7. This is actually really funny: the last few days I have been wracking my memory trying to remember the title of a juvenile-SF book I read when I was a juvenile, some time ago. I could remember the plot quite well, and that it was British, and an early effort by someone who later became well-known, but not the author’s name, the title or any internal personal- or place-names. And then I chance across this post and boom! it comes to me: the book was set on the planet Widdershins. A quick Googling gives “The Dark Side Of The Sun,” 1976, Terry Pratchett. Thank you!

  8. As an Australian, I’ve grown up using “anti-clockwise”. I am aware of ‘counter-clockwise”, but I always thought of it as a longer and clumsier way of saying “anti-clockwise” so I never liked using it.

    I’ve long known of “widdershins”, but until today I had no idea what it actually meant. Thank you 🙂

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