Thursday, March 11, 2010

Doing It Widdershins

In a British murder mystery that forced itself upon me the other day, I read that the Detective Chief Inspector “stirred his tea widdershins.”  Well, what do you know about that? Do all British cops do it?  Or is it just a DCI thing?  What the heck does it mean anyway?   

Widdershins, or withershins, as some persnickety dictionaries prefer, is a devious word whose true meaning is a little hard to grasp.  Here are some of the definitions: “in a left-handed, wrong, or contrary direction; counterclockwise; in a direction contrary to the apparent course of the sun; contrariwise; topsy-turvy; in a direction opposite to the usual.” The Oxford English Dictionary says your hair is widdershins if it’s standing on end.

So was the DCI stirring his coffee counterclockwise, wrongly, with his left hand, opposite from the sun’s course, differently from the way he usually stirred it, or while he was having a bad hair day?  Take your choice.

The word’s origin is Germanic: widar (“back against’) + sinnen (“to go”). 

For those of you who care about such things (and I expect the number is exceedingly small) the opposite of widdershins is deasil (pronounced just like the fuel).

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou, who has kicked a few widders’ shins in his rambunctious salad days, is more ruminative of late, especially about murder mysteries.
            Oh, Detective Chief Inspector,
            Have you solved the murder yet?
            Was it the dapper Duke who decked her,
            Or the boorish Baronet?

            The Husband also is suspicious,
            For he inherits all her cash.
            The Maid is known to be malicious—
            Her actions seem a little rash.

            It could have been the victim’s Doctor,
            But he’d use poison, wouldn’t he?
            Instead, it seems the villain knocked her
            In the head quite brutally.

            Ah! Perhaps it was the Vicar
            Who dispatched the fatal blow,
            When he has a drop of liquor,
            He turns belligerent, you know.
            Of course, her Lawyer might have killed her,
            It’s rumored he has been disbarred.
            So many suspects must bewilder
            All your men at Scotland Yard.
            But your deductions are much subtler,
            No culprit’s safe from your attack—
            What? You say it was the Butler?
            Good grief!  I want my money back.


  1. Markley Anonymous here.

    What a delightful word! Most words you write about are interesting but scarcely likely to become part of my vocabulary. This one is different. I do so many things way that I expect widdershins to be a word I find many occasions to use.

  2. This word actually came up in the directions of a computer game I was playing after work one night, and had it not been for The Bard, I would have lost precious seconds "stirring the pot" in the wrong direction. I KNEW this blog would come in handy some day ... :)