Wednesday, July 09, 2014

anti-clockwise and counterclockwise

I had to take/make a decision on how to hyphenate the title of this post--it could have been
anti-clockwise and counter-clockwise
anticlockwise and counter-clockwise
anticlockwise and counterclockwise
but I went with (BrE) anti-clockwise and (AmE) counterclockwise because, as we've seen before, Americans are a bit more apt to close up prefixed words when given the chance to. 

@jaynefox requested this one as a Twitter 'Difference of the Day', but since it's been a month since my last post (shock! horror! marking/grading!), I'm easing myself back into blogging with something that can't get too out-of-hand, I hope.

So why do we have different words for going in a circle as if going backward(s) on a clock?  The earliest instance of clockwise in the OED is from 1888 (and it's clock-wise, adding all sorts of hyphenation possibilities). This tells us that its opposite is a good bet for transatlantic differences: the British colonists could not have taken it to America, so each nation was free to come up with its own version. It's not so clear that their origins really were in different countries, though.

The OED's first instance of counter-clockwise is in the same quote as the clock-wise one, from the Times (of London).  Their first for anti-clockwise is from 1898. But should we trust the OED on this one? Probably not. These entries have not been updated in a long, long time and the OED's use of American sources was pretty limited in the early years.

Merriam-Webster has a first attestation date of 1879 for anticlockwise, but doesn't give the source. Its counter-clockwise date is also 1888.

So, I've turned to Google Books. Do you know what? Google Books is a pain. Search for counterclockwise in 19th century books, and you'll find that a lot of books that Google Books thinks were published in the 19th century weren't.  So, searching 12 pages into the results, I've found a few cases of counter(-)clock(-)wise antedating:
I could not find anything before 1880 for anti-clockwise (there's a nautical almanac that Google's dated as 1858, but that particular almanac didn't start publication till 1877, according to Wikipedia...and there are other such mis-datings).  

So, anti-clockwise is looking mostly British, but counterclockwise seems to have been used in England as early as it was being used in the US.  No obvious first coinage here, so we can't tell a tale of different national origins. All we can say is that anti-clockwise never caught on in the US, and counterclockwise quickly fell out of favo(u)r in the UK.

Oh, I suppose I can't leave without saying something about pronunciation.  In BrE the second syllable of anti-clockwise is pronounced like tea. Americans often (but not always) pronounce anti- with a second syllable like tie, which can help in distinguishing it from ante-. Some discussion of the variation in AmE pronunciation of anti- can be found here. For me, it's partly on a word-by-word basis: 'tea' in anticlimax, but 'tie' in anti-Communist.  I think if I form a new word with it (say, if I'm anti-pigeon), I'd pretty regularly use 'tie'. But that's what I think. And we're all pretty bad rememberers of what we do say and we're often bad judges of what we would say.  So, unless someone records me unawares saying antipigeon, we may never know...


John Cowan said...

The older word for anti-clockwise is widdershins.

Theo said...

With John Cowan (previous comment), I'd also like to ask about "widdershins", a word I've seen in fantasy novels and occasionally use (I am a mathematical physicist; directions matter) as an affectation, but have never heard. Wikipedia only provides that OED attests it from 1513, that it has cognates in German and Lowland Scots, and that it plays an important role in magick and superstition.

To my American ear, "anti-X" with the "ti" pronounced "tie" sounds like a position or opinion: "anti-pigeon" means that the person (or organization, or...) tries to kill those winged rats who live in New York City. Perhaps it's again a mathematics/physics thing, but an "antipigeon", with "ti" pronounced "tea", is a noun, and refer to the thing that is opposite in some mathematical sense to pigeons. The hyphenation also affects how I imagine that I pronounce the word.

David Crosbie said...
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David Crosbie said...

I would say that the second syllable in my British pronunciation is neither like tie nor like tea. Both these words are stressed. The -ty word-fragment is unstressed.

It's the difference between hot tea and hotty.

The phonetician John Wells dubbed it the happY vowel.

Consider this mad exchange from Tom Stoppard's play Travesties. A senile ex-diplomat Henry Carr misremembers a conversation (in the distant past) as if had been carried out in limericks.

James Joyce is trying to get money from Her Majesty's Government funds, while the Dadaist poet Tristan Tzara sounds off against cultural orthodoxy

JOYCE: And a couple of pounds till I'm paid.

CARR: I don't see why not. For my part
.............H.M.G. is considered pro-Art.
TZARA: Consider me anti.
GWEN: Consider your auntie?
JOYCE: A pound would do for a start.

The sequence ends as Carr finally thinks of an example of British culture

CARR: By Jove, I've got it! Iolanthe!
TZARA: Obscene!
CARR: ................. Is it?
TZARA: ..........................Avanti!
..............Gut'n Tag! Adios!
GWEN: Au revoir!
TZARA: .................Vamanos!
BENNETT: Give my regards to your auntie.

Anti rhymes with panty. It also rhymes with the way some Brits pronounce auntie, and the way many of us pronounce Italian avanti. And it almost rhymes with Iolanthe (the Gilbert and Sullivan operetta).

David Crosbie said...

I may be speaking only for myself, but I think that BrE associates counter- with opposing movement (or metaphorical movement):

Counter-Reformation, counter-insurgency, counter-attack, counter-claim, counter-revolution, counterbalance.

Whereas anti-clockwise movement is merely in a different direction. It's not as if we're forcing the hands of the clock to go the other way.

Yes I know that an antithesis is put forward in opposition to a thesis, but that compound was composed in Greek, not in English.

Diane said...

I wonder what will happen to our terms for rotational direction now that so many young people can no longer tell time with an analog clock. Will we come up with new terms that make more sense to future generations? Lefty-loosey / righty-tighty? Southern Hemisphere water going down the drain / Northern Hemisphere water going down the drain?

Eloise said...

And, of course, to go with widdershins, deosil for sunways, or clockwise.

I've both heard and used widdershins and deosil although perhaps they're not really everyday English (BrE) but they're alive and well in some circles. I guess that makes them jargon.

enitharmon said...

And is deosil related to the cryptic thrice-repeated opening words of the almost impenetrable Oxen of the Sun chapter of Ulysses, Deshil Holles Eamus? In my own Idiot's Guide to Ulysses, as yet unpublished and I'm still wondering if it's worthwhile, I didn't consider chirality. My superficial research seemed to indicate deshil was a Gaelic word for street.

Let us go to Holles Street, thricely and in a strange mixture of Gaelic and Latin. There, at numbers 29, 30 and 31, we find ( and can still find) the National Maternity Hospital.

But of course, this is an evening in June and I now see I see that there's a sense of going towards the setting sun, westwards. I shall revive this formerly moribund project and revise it!

David Crosbie said...


And is deosil related to the cryptic thrice-repeated opening words of the almost impenetrable Oxen of the Sun chapter of Ulysses, Deshil Holles Eamus?

Harry Blamires in The Bloomsday Book understands the word in its more basic Irish meaning 'southward'. Thus Let's go south to Holles Street.

The OED has an entry deasil | deiseal, adv. and n. with only the 'clockwise' meaning. The quotes are from Scottish writers — except that WH Auden used it with the spelling deisal.

The Old Irish root meant 'right' (an etymological cousin of Latin dexter). So
• with one right turn you go south
• with repeated right turns you go clockwise

Timothy Mills said...

Not common usage, but I've seen "widdershins" used in two very disparate venues.

One is in neo-pagan circles. I think this is connected to their wish to link their beliefs and practices to ancient, pre-Christian culture.

The other is in a talk by a Scottish phonetician. He doesn't strike me as the affectation type. I'd put it down to his non-academic linguistic background, because I haven't seen anyone else in the field use that term.

Eloise said...

I honestly don't know about Ulysses - I will simply say it's not my cup of tea.

Widdershins crops up in a range of other places from children's books to fantasy settings to others. I think my first exposure to deosil was in the same too. I can't remember the book's title now, but some children are on holiday in Cornwall, befriend a dragon and dance around a rocky outcrop on a beach noting its resemblance to a witch. As they dance the rock becomes more witch-like and the dragon rescues them, scolding them for dancing widdershins rather than deosil. It might be out of print now, I'd have read it well over 40 years ago but it probably my first exposure to the words.

Iain Mac Eochagáin said...

In Irish 'deis' means 'right, right hand' and 'deisceart' means 'south'. 'Ceart' means 'right' as in 'right to vote', and also 'correct', and is present in the word for 'north', 'tuaisceart', too. So there's a whole stew of associations for you to digest.

vp said...

@Diane -- the story about water going down the drain in different directions in each hemisphere, is a myth.

Boris Zakharin said...

To my American ears, counter- makes more compositional sense than anti- (not that that matters much, I wouldn't use the -wise suffix either). Anti- to me conjures up hostility toward something. To take one of your examples, an anti-communist is not the opposite of a communist (necessarily), but is against the idea of communist. While counter- can mean something like that too (counterculture), it's more of a "moving in the opposite direction" thing (counterrevolution). And no, nobody asked me when they coined the word "antimatter".

Mrs Redboots (Annabel Smyth) said...

I've heard both counter-clockwise and anti-clockwise used in BrE. I prefer the latter, but that could actually be a function of age? Often younger people here use what I consider American usages without realising that is what they are doing.

Anonymous said...

When reading, I almost always hear "anti-" with the "tea" ending through my mind's ear. Context doesn't seem to matter. I only know this for sure because I once had a teacher who tried to change my verbal pronunciation, and I spend years being annoyed that her "correction" never took.

I know there must be (are without a doubt, actually) a couple, but at the moment I can't think of a single word or context where the "tie" ending is my usual pronunciation.

Anonymous (as always) in New Jersey

RumDood said...

Thanks for this!

My wife and I noticed this while vacationing in the UK in June when her phone, with a UK SIM in it, suddenly started using BRE terms and instructed us to go "anti-clockwise" - which caught us a bit off-guard.

As for the pronunciation of "anti" - as a yank, I can't really think of a word where I commonly say "an-TEA" unless it's a word or phrase that I was introduced to by a Brit (I can't even imagine saying an-TIE clockwise, but I can't imagine saying an-TEA disestablishmentarianism, and it was always an-TIE matter in Star Trek, right?).

David Crosbie said...


it was always an-TIE matter in Star Trek, right?

Was it? I honestly never noticed. It's the sort of difference that you unconsciously translate.

Personally, I say neither anTIEmatter not anTEAmatter but ANtimmatter.

So that's what I heard in Star Trek.

David Crosbie said...

Personally I say neither anTIEmatter not anTEAmatter but ANtimmatter.

My vowel in the second syllable of antimatter is a 'short I' — also known as the KIT vowel.

In my accent, but not in posh old-fashioned English-of-England accents, this is different from the happY vowel — as in panty — which I personally use in many anti- words.

I've worked out that

1. I use the panty rhyme when anti- is an obvious prefix attached to an English word which carries a stress — such as CLOCK-wise.

2. I use the KIT vowel when anti- carries stress — as in ANT-ih-matter, ANT-ih-christ, ANT-i-dote.

3. I also use the KIT vowel in the small number of words where it carries the stress — as in an-TIPP-athy, an-TITH-esis, an-TIFF-phony.

These words don't feel like compounds — although they do come from the Greek ἀντί (in a Greek compound or in an international word based on Greek). They feel like those other words with the anti spelling that do not involve the prefix. — such as an-TISS-cipate, an-TICK-quity.

Dick Hartzell said...

As an American, I'm fairly sure I've reverted to anti- pronounced an-tea in most situations, including anti-communist. But I can't swear it isn't a result either of age or of some kind of cultural shift -- the phrase "anti-communist" doesn't get much play anymore.

It may be irrelevant, but Americans tend to pronounce Iraq either with a long i or a short i. I consider pronouncing it with a long i to be a bit parochial (alas, I can hear George Bush pronouncing it that way), so I'm wondering whether Iraq's unhappy presence in American discourse over the last decade could have skewed my pronunciation of anti- as a suffix ... and led me away from the long i.

Mrs Redboots (Annabel Smyth) said...

In British English, Iraq is always pronounced with a short "I" and usually with a long "a". Do I mean a long a? I mean an "ah" sort of sound, and that syllable is accented. I jumped the first time I heard an American person on television calling it Eye-rack!

For me, all "anti" words are pronounced with a short i, and many have the stress on the "ang" part. Obvious exceptions are words like antithesis, as has already been mentioned. Otherwise, it is like an insect- or relation-ridden picnic ("anty", of course!)

mollymooly said...

Is the US-UK variation in the pronunciation of the -i- vowel of anti- also found in (1) semi- (2) multi- or (3) quasi- ?

My feeling is that the answers are (1) yes (2) not so much; Americans sometimes have eye but usually ee, Brits always ee (3) no; both eye and ee are common in both US and UK.

David Crosbie said...
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David Crosbie said...


Brits always ee (3)

Not always. Some of us still use the old-fashioned KWAY-ZIGH.

Dick Hartzell said...

BTW: Merriam-Webster online defines widdershins (and displays a variant, spelled withershins) as "in a left-handed, wrong, or contrary direction" and gives counterclockwise as a synonym. Which I find a little peculiar, since whether you happen to say counterclockwise or anticlockwise I doubt it's ever to point out a direction you find wrong or contrary. Of course, since Merriam-Webster shows the origins as "Middle Low German weddersinnes, from Middle High German widersinnes, from widersinnen to go against", it isn't hard to conclude that widdershins, unlike anti- or counter-clockwise, is a word that predates (and was used well outside the bounds of) the scientific or industrial revolution.

David Crosbie said...

The OED treats widdershins | widdershins as having two senses. Both are found in texts from the sixteenth century. No sign of it in Old or Early Middle English — they reckon it's from Middle Low German.

†1. In a direction opposite to the usual; the wrong way; to stand or start withershins , (of the hair) to ‘stand on end’. Obs.

The earliest quote with start widdershins is the earliest recorded example — in a Middle Scots literary translation

2. In a direction contrary to the apparent course of the sun (considered as unlucky or causing disaster).

The earliest quotes involve witchcraft, and some involve bad luck. But several quotes are as neutrally descriptive as anti-clockwise.

People observed the progress of the sun long before the Industrial revolution. And it was followed on measuring apparatus — in the form of sundials.

Both senses are described as dialect and chiefly Scots.

David Crosbie said...

Mrs Redboots

Do I mean a long a?

Yes and no.

That sound does correspond to letter A in many languages, and in some of them it's a long variant distinct from a short one.

Once upon a time, English was such a language, but then all the sounds changed drastically — the so-called Great Vowel Shift. But this happened after English spelling was basically fixed. So historic English long a is now the sound in FACE.

Many of us use the term long a for the FACE vowel because we were taught it in primary school to explain mat vs mate, matting vs mating.

Others use long a for that other sound, the way the term is used to describe the sounds of other languages. There is a term broad a, but I'm not sure that it's popular nowadays.

In many cases my favoured term would be the BATH vowel. This allows for Norther English pronunciation of Iraq with a 'short a'. For words which have that sound in all accents I'd use the term the PALM vowel.

By the same token, the first vowel of Iraq can be described in terms of
1 short i ( as you and I pronounce it)
2 long i aka the PRICE vowel (as some Americans pronounce it)

A full set of words like FACE and PRICE use to described vowels can be seen at the Wikideia entry for Lexical sets.

Mrs Redboots (Annabel Smyth) said...

Thanks, David.

Kate Bunting said...

Coming late to this discussion, but my first thought on reading the blog entry was that I pronounce the 'i' in 'anti' as in 'bit', not as in 'tea'.
I'm familiar with 'widdershins', probably from children's stories originally, but not with 'deosil'.

mollymooly said...

@David Crosbie: "Brits always ee" relates to "(2) multi", not "(3) quasi-"

Little Black Sambo said...

..."the story about water going down the drain in different directions in each hemisphere, is a myth."
But is it true?

David Crosbie said...

Little Black Sambo

Click here and try it for yourself.

Anonymous said...

@David Crosbie:

Some of us still use the old-fashioned KWAY-ZIGH.

I bet you don't say KWAY-ZIGH-moh-doh though.

Boris Zakharin said...

On the topic of Iraq, it seems some people in the US (including our president) pronounce Iraq and Iran with different vowels (ee-rah vs. eye-ra) even when mentioning both one right after the other. I don't recall which is which, though.

They sound almost interchangeable in my lexicon, although I think I prefer "ee-rahn" for Iran slightly. I would certainly say them both the same way in the same sentence, though.

Anonymous said...

@Boris Zakharin, I also prefer "ee-rahn"; however, that's because a former Iranian-American colleague always pronounced it that way, and heaven help any staff she heard pronouncing it as "eye-rahn"! Even though she's now working in another country, I still twitch a bit when I hear anyone using the "eye" pronunciation.

Ever Anonymous in New Jersey

Anonymous said...

David Crosbie wrote: ...

I've worked out that

1. I use the panty rhyme when anti- is an obvious prefix attached to an English word which carries a stress ...

2. I use the KIT vowel when anti- carries stress — as in ANT-ih-matter ...

3. ... as in an-TIPP-athy, an-TITH-esis, an-TIFF-phony.

It's only just occurred to me that my pronunciation follows much of David Crosbie's experience. On the rare (these days, anyway) occasions I find myself thinking or saying "antipathy" or "antimatter" or "antithesis", I'd pronounce them as he's written – only in an American accent (that is different to Lynne's). It's because I don't tend to remember, usually, that "anti-" is a prefix when I'm thinking or saying those words.

Although I am always very aware of the prefix-iness of the "anti-" in "anti-Christ", I'm not sure how I say it. Don't really use that one much. (I know I don't say "TIE" in it anywhere, though.)

Anonymous in New Jersey

Mrs Redboots (Annabel Smyth) said...

Here it would not be Ee-rahn or Ee-rahq, but a much shorter "i" sound - I think it would be called the KIT vowel, no? And the emphasis very slightly on the final syllable

David Crosbie said...

Mrs Redboots

I think most English-of-England speakers (I think I can say most British speakers other than Scots) use their KIT vowel for the first syllable and their BATH vowel for the second. (The BATH vowel sounds different in the South and in the North.)

That said, some speakers use different norms for countries — especially Muslim countries. Well, some people post on the Internet insisting on the AH sound in Iraq, Iraq and (with some vehemence) Pakistan even when the regional norm for BATH is a 'short-a' vowel like the one in TRAP words.

The PRICE vowel used by some Americans in the first syllable is a logical spelling pronunciation of letter-I + SINGLE CONSONANT + VOWEL.

We could say EYE-tuh-ly (Italy), but we don't. When we say EYE TAL yun (Italian) rhyming with my stallion, it's a joke. But the pejorative abbreviation is pronounced EYE-TIE with two PRICE vowels.

For some reason large numbers revert to spelling pronunciation for the first syllable of Ibiza. Bizarrely, the most popular pronunciation uses old-fashioned Anglicising PRICE vowel for the first syllable, then near-Castilian BEE-thuh for the rest of the word.

Roberta Davies said...

As a practising occultist, I can confirm that deosil and widdershins are in wide use as the normal specialist terms for clockwise and anti-clockwise. Deosil is more common, simply because clockwise movement is itself more common in rituals.

The directions are strongly associated with the the Sun's movement as viewed from the northern hemisphere. (I've seen sunwise used once or twice as an equivalent of deosil.) "White" magic associates itself with this natural course of progression, and therefore if you're turning around or walking in a circle, for instance, you move deosil. Moving widdershins would be very unusual, and would be associated with destructive magic such as cursing.

Dick Hartzell said...

Anonymous in New Jersey noted:

Although I am always very aware of the prefix-iness of the "anti-" in "anti-Christ", I'm not sure how I say it. Don't really use that one much. (I know I don't say "TIE" in it anywhere, though.)

Which raises an interesting point. In American English, if someone accused me of hating Christianity they might say I'm anti-Christ with a long "i" (ant-eye), but if I claimed to be THE Anti-Christ I'd likely use the short "i" (ant-ee).

Iain Mac Eochagáin said...

On a related point, Dick, would you always say Antichrist of the Antichrist? Your comment above would seem to suggest that you use it without the article, which to me is new.

David Crosbie said...


I think Dick is echoing Tristan Tsara's (alleged)

Consider me anti — i.e. 'anti-art'.

(see above)

Dick Hartzell said...

Iain: I'm a little confused by your query. As I suggested in my previous post, if I denied I hated Christianity I might say "I'm not anti-Christ", but if I denied being Mephistopheles I might say "I'm not the Anti-Christ". (Or the Antichrist, since the preferred spelling seems to be no hyphen and a lowercase "c".) Is this not a meaningful distinction to you?

Dick Hartzell said...

I think Dick is echoing Tristan Tsara's (alleged)

Consider me anti — i.e. 'anti-art'.

In which case I assume the "anti" in Tzara's remark would be pronounced "ant-eye" ...

I don't know how it is in the UK, but to my mind as an anglophone I reserve the right to pronounce prefixes ending in "i" with either a short or a long vowel. So if I pronounced "quasi" with a long i I might be interested in projecting a certain skepticism, e.g.,

Blowhard: America is a democracy, is it not?
Me: I think at best it's a quasi-democracy.

On the other hand, if I were to pronounced the title of Quasi-Experimental Research Designs by Bruce A. Thyer I'd use a short i.

David Crosbie said...


In which case I assume the "anti" in Tzara's remark would be pronounced "ant-eye" ...

That would ruin the joke. It would also ruin the subsequent rhymes.

Actors — of all nationalities — are under an obligation to the playwright which may override their usual democratic entitlement.