Out of curiosity I decided to look up widdershins - not the meaning, I knew that, counterclockwise - but the etymology. Where'd it come from?
Dictionary.com says, according to the American Heritage Dictionary, that it is from the Middle Low German weddersinnes, which is from the Middle High German widersinnes, which is derived from the Old High German words wider (or widar) - meaning back, and sinnes, meaning "in the direction of", from sin, or "direction".
I couldn't quite figure how "backwards" got turned into counterclockwise - I could see a relationship but I wanted more, so I kept digging. (Mayhaps that was just my own ignorance; looking
I found a great source online - the Online Etymology Dictionary, which stated widdershins was actually from the Scottish, and it was from the words withers and sinni (meaning "way").
Withers I was familiar with - it's the back or shoulders of a horse. So did it just mean back? Well, according once again to the site: "probably from a dialectal survival of O.E. wi�er "against, contrary, opposite" (see with) + plural suffix. Possibly so called because the withers are the parts of the animal that oppose the load."
Ah hah! So it actually doesn't refer to backs per se but opposing - or, say, by extension, being contrary. And, well, we all know that back then being right-handed was only sane and proper, right? Being left hand was a sign of something being wrong - look at words like sinister, gauche, all words with negative meanings that basically mean "left handed". The "bend sinister" is a heraldric term referring to a stripe that passes from the upper-right to the lower-left corners of the shield (or whatever heraldric device is being used, I suppose). Gauche itself is from the french word for "left", and now means awkward, or clumsy, or tactless.
So what it boils down to, more or less, is simply an opposing or counter-turn - in other words, a counter-clockwise turn. Ta da!
Anyways, next time you're stopped on a woodland path by a figure wreath'd in ivy who recommends that you turn thrice widdershins, you'll know exactly where it came from. Not that it'll help you much, but there you go.
P.S. If anyone has any more details, or cares to correct any inaccuracies, go for it! I'd love for someone to settle the Scottish/German issue above - the languages don't have a common root as far as I know, so how a word could claim to be derived from both seems odd to me. I'm sure there are other things wrong with it as well, I only spent a few minutes digging around online and likely missed some important parts.
P.P.S. Some interesting, related links for your surfing enjoyment:
- Xah's list of similar English words
- The Schrapnel Papers - Call me Gonzo!
- Embracing the moon - a forum discussion on widdershins vs. deosil (deasil)
- The Online Etymology Dictionary
- Good old Dictionary.com