Woolgathering and widdershins — a journey through words

Published Sept. 29, 2003
Woolgathering is defined variously as idle daydreaming and to let one’s mind wander from the matter at hand. Related words are mosey, saunter, dawdle, lollygag, goldbrick, loiter, lounge, laze, and more, and in a society that is obsessed with production, these terms are saddled with negative connotations.
But woolgathering can be a practice both rewarding and productive. Open the dictionary, with no set course, and the world opens its doors. Lose that need to reach a goal, and words teeming with culture and history and mystery beckon the reader to enter the gates of other lands.
Widdershins is such a word, discovered in a lexicographical woolgathering expedition. It comes from Middle Low German, Middle High German and Old High German and is first found in print in 1513, which means the word could be much older. (Good word woolgathering requires a dictionary with etymologies.) It is defined as moving in a left-handed or contrary direction, otherwise known as counterclockwise. Then, at the end of the definition, the reader is told to compare widdershins to deasil.
Deasil comes from the Scots-Gaelic deiseil, meaning clockwise. These terms were of extreme importance in the Scottish Highlands, where ritual observances of the seasons and of planting and harvesting included moving around huge bonfires or dwellings in a sunwise, or clockwise, direction. To move in a widdershins motion could ruin a crop or kill livestock. Witches approached the devil in a widdershins direction.
Then there are the German language terms. Low German referred to the dialects of northern Germany, which was closer to sea level than southern and central Germany, where High German was spoken. Middle refers to the time period 1100 to 1500 A.D.
While finding these terms, one stumbles across midlatitudes and low earth orbit. It goes on and on. An infinite universe is stuffed into a relatively small book.
But back to woolgathering. Wool comes from Old English wull and is akin to the Latin vellus, for fleece, and lana for wool, hence lanolin. Vellus makes one wonder if it is also the root for vellum, a term for paper that originally was writing material made from calfskin but which now means paper with a vellum finish, but not so. Vellum derives from the French word, veel, for calf, as in veal, and veel has its root in vitulus, Latin for calf.
The common thread running through this journey (journey comes from Old French journee, from jour, French for day, journee being a day’s travel) is the effects of a rural society on the language. Just as automobiles, computers and the Internet are reshaping today’s language, daily rural activities of centuries past were the inspiration for new words and terms. Those activities, though long abandoned by most people in favor of other methods, live on through words. Their importance and prevalence in past society can be divined via the study of language.
Linguists have reconstructed root words of Indo-European, the language from which are descended European and Indian languages, by finding common elements in that language’s descendants. A culture that refuses to disclose its secrets to archaeology is unmasked by words.
Woolgathering: Indulgence in idle daydreaming? Or is it a widdershins approach to the world?

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