Widdershins and Deasil
I get the "Word of the Day" emails from Word Genius, and widdershins was their word yesterday. I've found that a majority of the words they include are words I already know, which is just fine, but this one was completely new to me. I thought it sounded super interesting, and I was right! Here is some of what I found, including the word's antonym, deasil. (I just love learning new words, don't you?)
The word "widdershins" is a combination of the old German terms widar (meaning "back" or "against") and sinnen (meaning "to travel"). Although the word draws from the German language, it was most commonly used among the Scottish. In its earliest uses, widdershins simply referred to hair falling the wrong way. Some people say this is based on an early translation of the Aeneid, but I had trouble finding evidence to back that up.
(So if anyone knows anything about this, please share!)
Eventually, the word was used to describe anything that went in the opposite direction of the usual or traveled in a direction opposite to the sun's path (which is counterclockwise if you are in the northern hemisphere). As time passed, it started to become associated with evil and considered unlucky.
Because a lot of older religions considered the sun an important part of their worship, going against it was considered bad luck. According to Merriam-Webster, there are legends that say demons always approached the devil widdershins, so that also plays into the superstition surrounding the word and its action. Some people still avoid walking widdershins around a church because of this.
The opposite of widdershins is deasil, which (obviously, since it's the opposite) means clockwise or in the usual direction. Unlike widdershins, which comes from Germanic roots, the word "deasil" (sometimes spelled "deisul") has Scottish Gaelic and Irish roots. It draws from the old Irish terms dess (meaning "right/south") and sel (meaning "turn"). So quite literally it means righthand turn, which, if you kept turning to the right in a circle, would be clockwise.
Just as widdershins was considered to bring misfortune, deasil was considered lucky. Merriam-Webster tells us that ancient customs say that "you can bring someone good fortune by walking around the person clockwise three times while carrying a torch or candle. In Scottish Gaelic, the word deiseil is used for the direction one walks in such a luck-bringing ritual" ("Deasil"). Since—in the northern hemisphere at least—clockwise is the same direction as the sun's travel, this makes sense based on the logic behind why widdershins was considered bad.
I hope you enjoyed reading about these two words and learned something new! If you did, make sure to subscribe to the Write or Wrong blog to receive alerts when a new blog post is uploaded. That way you'll never miss out on learning new, interesting words!
"Deasil." Merriam-Webster.com Dictionary, s.v. accessed December 4, 2020.
"Widdershins." Merriam-Webster.com Dictionary, s.v. accessed December 3, 2020.