May 19, 2017

Clockwise.

Why do we prefer clockwise? Is it because we're in the northern hemisphere — that is, does it have to do with clocks, which were modeled on sundials? And was clockwise a concept (and a preferred direction) before we had the word "clock," and if so, what there a word for it?

What about the way lids and screws and things are designed to be turned clockwise to tighten? Is that related to clocks or to the fact that most of us are right-handed and right-handed people are stronger turning things clockwise and it's more important to have strength to tighten than to loosen? Ever notice that left-handed people are good at opening jars?

Or do you think the preference for clockwise is related to our left-to-right writing system, and clockwise is really a matter of going from left to right? Or does our writing system go left to right because of: 1. The direction of the sun, or 2. The fact that most of us are right-handed?

The answers to most of these questions are in the Wikipedia article "Clockwise."

66 comments:

Gahrie said...

Today is the last day of school for my seniors. Many, if not most of them, cannot read an analog clock. (or read and write cursive)

richlb said...

Strange that in the Southern Hemisphere the clock hands rotate the opposite direction.

Infinite Monkeys said...

I write left to right.

dwstaple said...

All that said, tracks and roller rinks typically run CCW.

MadisonMan said...

Cyclonic. Anticyclonic. Works in both hemispheres.

Ann Althouse said...

How do you get a big hand on a sundial?

St. George said...

I'm left handed and when I write by hand from left-to-right, my handwriting is sloppy. But when I studied Arabic and wrote from right-to-left, my handwriting was incredibly neat.

The ancient Greeks wrote in boustrophedon style like an ox plowing a field....left to right then right to left.

tcrosse said...

The Old Jewish Town Hall in Prague has a clock with Hebrew characters which runs counter-clockwise.

Ann Althouse said...

"Cyclonic. Anticyclonic. Works in both hemispheres."

Words that probably don't predate clocks.

ceowens said...

Because I need "righty-tighty, lefty loosey".

exiledonmainstreet said...

I'm left-handed too and I'm good at opening jars. This is the first time it ever occurred to me it might be because I'm left handed. Normally, being a southpaw is a disadvantage, unless your goal is to pitch in the majors.

St. George, I think I had constant ink stains on my hand from writing right to left during my school years. Smearing ink on the paper and having to balance notebooks on my knee while taking notes in class in college didn't help my handwriting either.

Larvell said...

Right to left writing system? Have I been doing it wrong this whole time?

Xmas said...

Because widdershins is the wrong way to go.

dbp said...

Jar lids are opened as often as closed but most things which are threaded are never taken back off. Think of all the screws, nuts and bolts that hold everything together--they never come off unless you have a kid who likes to take broken things apart before you throw them out. I was that kid, btw.

What I never understood, but which seems very natural, is running races in track CCW.

Ignorance is Bliss said...

Ever notice that left-handed people are good at opening jars?

That's unrelated to clockwise/counter-clockwise. Left-handed people are better at everything.

Ignorance is Bliss said...

While clockwise is the norm for most things, in math angles are measured counter-clockwise from the x axis.

Karen said...

Sorry, Ann. Clockwise moves from left to right.

Peter said...

"A new study says that dogs choose the direction they relieve themselves based on our planet’s magnetic field."

http://www.pbs.org/newshour/rundown/dogs-poop-in-alignment-with-earths-magnetic-field-study-finds/

But, do they always circle clockwise before doing it?

Dan Karipides said...

"Is that related to clocks or to the fact that most of us are right-handed and right-handed people are stronger turning things clockwise and it's more important to have strength to tighten than to loosen? Ever notice that left-handed people are good at opening jars?"

I'm baffled here. I'm right-handed and I have a lot more strength opening a jar than closing it. Hold the jar in your left hand, grasp the lid with your right, rotate your thumb towards your body (counter-clockwise). I definitely have a lot more strength doing that than rotating away from my body (clockwise) to tighten.

tcrosse said...

The New York City subway used left-hand threaded light bulbs to prevent theft.

Ignorance is Bliss said...

tcrosse said...

The New York City subway used left-hand threaded light bulbs to prevent theft.

And they probably paid so much extra per bulb & socket that it would have been cheaper to let the bulbs be stolen.

Left Bank of the Charles said...

That was a bad design decision, if the thing to be screwed in might have to be unscrewed.

AllenS said...

Sometimes, "righty-tighty, lefty loosey" will not work if you have a gas attachment that looks like this -- notice the groves in the nut:

Left handed thread

My acetylene/oxygen cutting torch has two different tanks. The acetylene attachment is a left handed thread. That way you won't interchange the set up.

Mike said...

In the northern hemisphere, where clocks were developed, people liked to lie on their backs with their feet pointing south and look at the sky. From that orientation the sun rises at left and moves rightward across the sky. Or it was just a random thing that happened when the first gears were installed in "grandfather" clocks. One or the other.

St. George said...

One day there will be a revolution, and all rights will be lefted.

Ron Winkleheimer said...


Before reading the article, I will note that the word for going the opposite of clock-wise is "widdershins" and that is defined as "in a direction contrary to the sun's course, considered as unlucky; counterclockwise."


And there is a "decolonized" clock in Bolivia that goes widdershins. So, I'm guessing sundials.

Ann Althouse said...

@Larvell

Oops. Thanks. Fixed.

George Grady said...

If you don't like referring to clocks, the words "sunwise" or "sunways" and "deasil" or "deiseil" exist for "clockwise". Moving around things the same direction that the sun does (at least in the northern hemisphere) is good luck, whereas moving in the other direction is "widdershins", i.e., against sense.

Greg said...

My inlaws had a clock behind the bar in their home that was counterclockwise

Original Mike said...

Blogger Karen said..."Sorry, Ann. Clockwise moves from left to right."

Only at "the top" of the clock. On the bottom it's right to left. And the "bottom" is all you see on the sundial (at least north of the Tropic of Cancer).

Owen said...

Certain mechanical parts (like bicycle crank bolts) are threaded in the opposite sense, so that as they encounter vibration etc in use they will tend to tighten rather than loosen.

But in general I think this is a big problem, having so many things go clockwise. Unless there is an equivalent number of things going the OTHER way, we are going to end up torquing the planet into a strange new shape.

Coriolis Force is the big one here. The number of cyclones and anticyclones has got to match, or climate change will, ahem, spin out of control.

Owen said...

As a member of the Contrarian Society, I think "widdershins" is just about the coolest word ever.

James K said...

Normally, being a southpaw is a disadvantage, unless your goal is to pitch in the majors.

Tennis, too. Probably any sport where there's a one-on-one battle, maybe boxing? Mainly from not being used to going against lefties.

Sometimes if I have trouble opening a jar (which is rare, I must add), I'll switch to using my left hand, even though I'm a righty and presumably have more strength in my right hand.

rhhardin said...

The universe has a handedness, as I recall. I don't remember in what. Something about subatomic particles.

rhhardin said...

The Cleveland airport novelty shop had a backwards clock with a sign under it, "Don't miss your flight - this clock runs backwards."

From which you can infer a history and a decision.

Owen said...

rhhardin: "The universe has a handedness..." Yes, I seem to recall something, probably by Feynman on the asymmetry of charged particles or something. If it had all matched up, nothing would exist.

Help, please, from our resident physicists?

Owen said...

Feynman did Caltech Lecture 52 on symmetry. Masterful as always. And quite beyond my misremembered characterization.

chickelit said...

The world is chiral (handed). Why? Who broke the mirror so long ago?

chickelit said...

Does the Universe have handedness or is it just one ever-expanding asymmetric splooge?

George Grady said...

Owen:

You're probably thinking of the "parity violation" demonstrated by Chien-Shiung Wu in what's now called the Wu experiment. It showed that the weak nuclear interaction (like beta decay of atomic nuclei) can tell right from left.

Guildofcannonballs said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Guildofcannonballs said...

Clockwise sounds like otherwise or hencewise or Edelweiss (kinda with an accent) or cropwise or surmise etc.

But counterclockwise sounds counter to a lot more than just clocks, but most other things ending in wise too, depending on your brain's filing system's cross-tabs*.

Also, if there is ever a shortage of "l's" on the internet, then you have a very dirty word with all kinds of potential meanings ejaculate.

*If it helps you think in terms of tag proliferation: too many and they become so cluttered as to be worthless or even harmful in themselves as measured by achieving of the opposite of the goals concepted when the tagging eventuated.

MadisonMan said...

Words that probably don't predate clocks.

Earth has been rotating cyclonically for a lot longer than clocks have been around.

Owen said...

George Grady. "...parity violation...". Thanks. To the extent that I can be said to think on this matter, that sounds about right. Amazing stuff.

Ann Althouse said...

"Earth has been rotating cyclonically for a lot longer than clocks have been around."

Clocks are based on sundial, which relate to this reality, but still, I had asked what word was used before clocks. The answer, sunwise, probably doesn't predate sundials. I think people used the idea of right, without worrying about the idea of goes in a circle.

Also, you're only going sunwise when you go clockwise if you're facing north to start, so it makes much more sense to say to the right.

Yancey Ward said...

Dan Karapides wrote:

"I'm baffled here. I'm right-handed and I have a lot more strength opening a jar than closing it. Hold the jar in your left hand, grasp the lid with your right, rotate your thumb towards your body (counter-clockwise). I definitely have a lot more strength doing that than rotating away from my body (clockwise) to tighten."

I strongly suspect that you are an exception rather than a rule. I am a righty, but I open jars with the left hand for a very simple reason- I can use the pad of the thumb of the left hand against the lid's outer rim to push rather than pull lid counterclockwise. This allows me to put quite a bit more grip pressure on the lid simply because the act of turning presses the thumb into the lid rim itself.

Yancey Ward said...

One of the great biological mysteries is the handedness of natural amino acids- life on Earth is made up of L-amino acids rather than R-amino acids. No one is really sure why, either, though it has been claimed that amino-acids formed in space that arrive, today, on Earth show a slight preference for L over R, too.

Paco Wové said...

Dang, Yancey beat me to it.

Oh well, gotta get my oar in somehow: "there is some suggestion that early amino acids could have formed in comet dust. In this case, circularly polarised radiation (which makes up 17% of stellar radiation) could have caused the selective destruction of one chirality of amino acids, leading to a selection bias which ultimately resulted in all life on Earth being homochiral"

Paco Wové said...

Also note that while most amino acids are left-handed, most sugars are right-handed.

Humperdink said...

My dad permitted to use the family car, a 1967 Dodge convertible on a date. I then got a flat tire and proceeded to change the flat tire.

Snapped off two lug studs before I realized that side of the car had counter-clockwise (ie left-hand) lug stud threads. The other side had normal clockwise threads.

Original Mike said...

"Also, you're only going sunwise when you go clockwise if you're facing north to start, so it makes much more sense to say to the right."

This isn't right (or, it's right only half the time). Face south and place a clock in front of you. From 9:00 to 3:00 the hand is moving westward. From 3:00 to 9:00 the hand is moving eastward.

exiledonmainstreet said...

St. George said...
One day there will be a revolution, and all rights will be lefted."

Heh. When I was a kid, I thought it would be great to own a house completely geared to left-handers. The door and cabinet hinges would all be on the opposite side and so would the refrigerator door handle and TV controls (I was imagining all this in the days before remotes). I liked visualizing righties visiting me and finding themselves in a building geared to southpaws.

One would have to be rich and eccentric to build such a home. (A left-handed mlb pitcher could certainly afford it.) And it has occurred to me that it would be - initially at least - just as disorienting for lefties, since we're accustomed to navigating a right-handed world.

Mark Nielsen said...


Mathematicians definitely prefer counterclockwise.

n.n said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
JohnAnnArbor said...

Snapped off two lug studs before I realized that side of the car had counter-clockwise (ie left-hand) lug stud threads. The other side had normal clockwise threads.

Shouldn't there be an engraved warning about that nearby? "Note reversed threads" or something.

n.n said...

Because it's a shorter path than "counterclockwise."

Rusty said...

I suspect that right handedness for threads is because most of the originators were right handed. From a thread cutting perspective it would have been just as easy to cut a left hand thread. I'm referring back before the time of a screw cutting lathe. Sometime after the Amtikethera and before the middle ages.

Yancey Ward said...

I guess I should clarify one thing- convention calls natural amino acids "Left" because they bear the corresponding stereochemisty of the glyceraldehyde isomer from which one could in theory synthesize them- L-glyceraldehyde which is levo-rotatory in its interaction with plane-polarized light. Using the same convention, "Right" amino acids are not really R-amino acids, but rather D-amino acids where D stands for dextro-rotatory.

The proper systematic designation of stereochemistry, however, uses S and R instead of L and D, and, yes, I co-mingled the systems because I didn't want to have to explain why I was using D rather than R or S rather than L. However, Paco's comment about the sugars sort of forces me to clarify.

All natural amino acids are L, and all but one are S. The only exception is cysteine, but that is because the priority of the ligands to the alpha-carbon is switched around because of the sulfur atom being a higher atomic weight than the oxygens of the carboxyl group and leads to the natural isomer being R-cysteine.

Brian Balster said...

"Shouldn't there be an engraved warning about that nearby? "Note reversed threads"

There were little 'L's on the end of the lug bolts you could not miss them... If you already knew they were there.
1970 'cuda 383 magnum Hearst pistol grip shifter

pacwest said...

I had a similar experience to Humperdink. I was in high school and driving around with a buddy. We stopped to help an older lady with a flat. Snapped 2 lugs before realizing the threads were LH. Went ahead and changed the tire, tightened the 3 remaining lugnuts and apologized for what we had done. The lady was just happy for the help and offered us $5 for our good samaritanism. We refused the money of course. I'm just glad I wasn't around when her husband found out about it. Nice young men indeed. I still feel guilty about it 40 years later.

tcrosse said...

In physics there are Right Hand and Left Hand rules concerning the relationship between the direction of electical current and magnetic force.

Darrell said...

Ever notice that left-handed people are good at opening jars?

It has to do with masturbating more.

Infinite Monkeys said...

Now my 8:32 AM comment sounds weird in an "I too write left to right" kind of way instead of it saying the opposite of what was in the post.

RLB_IV said...

The brochure for the housekeeping robot didn’t mention if it was right or left handed.

Owen said...

Coriolis force puts a right-hand bias on things (wind, water) moving in the Northern Hemidphere. People would have seen and experienced that righthanded (clockwise) tendency and carried it into their basic habits --like threading boots and marking dials.

I just made this up so call it a weak hypothesis deserving of late-night hooting but after the laughter maybe I will try to test it. How, however?

Owen said...

Hemidphere = hemisphere

Boot = bolt