I was talking to my mum not long ago and mentioned that one of my cousins is a leftie. Mum was shocked. “Has she tried using her right hand?” she asked. “They should have forced her when she was young.”
And it got me thinking, why is left-handedness considered bad or evil? How did the left side come to be considered unlucky and wicked? Well, my search led me down a long path, a very long and sinister path.
And I’m sure you won’t be surprised to hear that it has a bit to do with one of my favourite topics, religion.
Do you know where the word “left” comes from? Well, in Latin, it’s Sinister. No, left isn’t sinister or evil, well it might be but more about that in a bit.
What I mean is that the word Sinister, which we use in English to refer to something frightening or evil is actually the Latin word that means, left, or on the left side.
So let’s break it down. How did sinister come to mean left and why is the left sinister?
Well, it’s actually because of the toga, of all things. The word sinister comes from the Latin word sinus, which means “pocket”, and that’s because a Roman toga had one pocket, and it was on the left side. Pretty simply. Sinus and Sinister literally meant the Left side.
In fact, in Italian, we say sinestro when telling someone to turn left. It has no malevolent connotation at all. It’s just left.
But according to the Collins Dictionary, or any dictionary actually, today, the word Sinister means “threatening or suggesting evil, harm, or trouble”.
So what does any of this have to do with my cousin’s left handedness and my mum’s counsel to purge her of the habit?
A lot, and, of course, the Bible may be responsible for most of the drama, as does ancient bird divination, and the toilet habits of some cultures.
In the Bible, poor Eve gets a bad rap. She’s naughty, convinces Adam to take a bite of the apple, cosies up with the devil. And she is depicted on God’s left hand side while Adam and later Jesus sit on the right hand side of the father. And generations have interpreted this as a sign that right is might and left, obviously, must be sinful.
But that’s not the only reference in the bible to the malevolence of the left. In both the old and new testaments, there are plenty of entries. The Book of Matthew in the New Testament talks about how God will divide people on Judgment Day.
“As a shepherd divideth his sheep from the goats; and he shall set the sheep on his right hand, but the goats on the left,” with those on the right sent to the kingdom of Heaven and those on the left “cursed, into everlasting fire, prepared for the devil and his angels.”
In fact, the right hand is mentioned positively around 100 times in the Bible, while the left hand is mentioned only 25 times, and all of those references are negative.
God destroys his enemies with his right hand, the hand of power, and he even created man with his right forefinger, according to Michelangelo’s depiction on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.
And sure it would be so easy to lay the blame squarely on the shoulders of Christianity, but many more cultures and religions that agree.
In Judaism, for example, the right is considered powerful, while the left is said to embody weakness.
And in Islamic and some African cultures, the left hand is considered unclean and not used for eating and, well, that’s simply because of traditional toilet rituals, the left hand is literally unclean compared to the right. So if you go to any country where eating is done with the hands DO NOT use your left hand unless you want to be met with incredulous stares.
The prevalence such anti-left theories abound throughout history.
Way, way back, in Ancient Greece, Rome and Egypt, the left was already considered inauspicious.
You see, it was all because of birds.
The Augur was the priest or official who practiced Augury, which is the interpretation of the will of the Gods through the study of the flight paths of birds. The Augurs looked at omens and made myriad decisions like whether a King should invade another land or, in the case of ancient Rome, where the city was to be built. The twins Romulus and Remus settled their argument through augury, and in this practice, If birds appeared on the Augur’s left, it was unfavourable, and spelled bad juju.
When people worship Zeus in ancient Greece, sentries watched them entering the holy temples to make sure they stepped in with their right foot for fear that they would curse the temple if they entered with their left.
And look, while it didn’t take much for women in the 15th and 16th centuries to be persecuted if you were a woman AND left handed, that’s it, you were a witch or possessed by demons.
Up until around the 1300s, it was thought that Lucifer, the devil, was left-handed, and many rituals used to summon him used the left hand.
So it is a case of the chicken or the egg? What came first? Was Lucifer left handed, leading to the defamation of lefties, or was this idea made up to lend credence to the deviance of left handedness?
Yes. I said Deviance.
As we know, society fears anything different, and because only around 10% of people are left handed, they are considered an abomination simply because they are the minority in every country and every culture and I’m going to tell you some of the punishments met by left-handers a little later.
First let’s look at the word itself. Are you ready for me to butcher some of the world’s languages?
The English word Left, comes from the Anglo-Saxon Lyft, which actually means weak or foolish. Of course because for most, the left hand was the weaker.
And it’s not just English that makes this connection between the left and weakness. Many languages translate right to mean correct, good, or proper and left to mean the opposite. Let’s have a look.
In Sanskrit, the word “वाम” stands for both “left” and “wicked”.
In Polish, the word prawo means right and the law.
In French, droit means both straight and right – both in terms of direction and moral value. When you say something is gauche, it means left, but also iffy or tacky, common.
In other Latin languages such as Italian, Spanish and Portuguese, diestro or adestro mean both right handed, or to the right but it also means skilful.
These Latin languages all use a form of Sinister, such as siniestra to indicate the left. In Spanish it is most common to say izquierda when referring to corruption or evil. And what does izquierda also mean? Why Left, of course.
In Portuguese, the most common word for a left-handed person, canhoto, was once used to identify the devil.
In Vietnamese, the word for “right”, phải also means “correct” or “must”. The word for “left” is trái, which is also used interchangeably to mean “wrong” and “opposite”.
In Irish, Ciotóg is the left hand and is related to ciotach meaning “awkward”.
In Norwegian, the word “keivhendt” is used for “left-handed”, but it literally translates to “wrong-handed”.
In Turkish, the word for right is sağ, which means “alive”. The word for left is sol, which means “discolor”, “die”, “ill”.
In Chinese culture, the adjective “left” as in the “left path” means taking the unorthodox road or using immoral means.
Although in magic and witchcraft the Left Handed path is used to refer to dark magic, and the Right Handed Path to good magic.
Left is commonly used all over the world in such pejorative ways. Listen to some of these phrases.
When something is out of left field, it means it’s far removed from play. In baseball, it’s literal. In everyday life, it means something that came out of nowhere, and it’s a bit weird, used with a frown.
A person who has two left feet is clumsy, and a bad dancer.
A left-handed compliment is a passive aggressive way to insult someone. For example,
Wow you’re pretty smart for a girl.
In English we say “to get up on the wrong side of the bed” and that means you’re in a bad mood, but in Spanish it’s “levantarse con el pie izquierdo“, and in French it’s “s’être levé du pied gauche“, which literally mean to get up with the left foot.
And here are a few more expressions that will have you agreeing that left is debauched.
In Dutch, to look over someone’s left shoulder is to look down on them.
In Swedish, to do something with your left hand means that you’re doing it badly.
In dressmaking it’s believed to be bad luck to sew the left-hand sleeve onto a garment before the right sleeve.
And then we have politics.
Of course, communism is Left of Centre. So if someone is a Leftist, they’re considered a Marxist. In Australia, we talk of the Labor party as Left and small L liberal and the big L Liberal party as Right and conservative, not liberal like the Americans think of it.
And this is all thanks to the French revolution and the seating arrangements in the French National Assembly, their parliament.
The French Revolution went on for ten years from May 1789 to November 1799.
The nobility, who were conservative and wanted to preserve their ruling class were seated to the right in the National Assembly, and the Third Estate, or the commoners, were seated to the left. The commoners obviously agreed with the revolution, giving power to the people, opposing the regime of the royals. And remember what I said the French word for left is? Guache. Meaning that commoners were, yes, tacky and wrong.
Alas, the French monarchy was restored in 1815, and in the late 19th Century, the term Left Wing was coined to disparage those with unorthodox or liberal political or religious views.
Interestingly, the phrase has been used more recently to disparage any liberal movement without taking politics into account. So, for example, if you believe in equal rights for women, you’re left-wing, anti-war, left wing, pro democracy and voter rights, left wing. Left is populism.
So back to what my mum said about my cousin. Are left-handed people evil? Should they have their left-handedness eradicated?
Many, many people have tried, and the consequences have been dire.
I guarantee you that if I had turned out to be left handed, it would not have turned out well.
In fact generations of Catholic children have been punished to force them to change their writing hand. And punishments varied, from having the left hand tied behind the back to beatings.
The 19th Century doctor Cesare Lambroso saw left-handedness as a mark of pathological behaviour, savagery and criminality. People who were left -handed, according to Lambroso, were primitive and abnormal.
But even into the mid 20th century, American psychoanalyst Abram Blau attributed left handedness to perversity and British educational psychologist Cyril Burt was described them as “stubborn and willful” as well as “awkward” and “clumsy”.
Up until the latter part of the 20th century, Soviet bloc countries had actual policies against left-handedness. In fact, it’s suggested that Vladimir Putin is actually a closeted south paw. Spain, Italy, Yugoslavia and a number of other European countries made right-handed writing compulsory in school. And in Albania, left-handedness was made illegal.
Have you seen the film, The King’s Speech? King George 6th, the current Queen’s dad was a left hander who was forced to write with his right hand. While the movie didn’t make much of this, it’s important to note that he grew up a timid and nervous boy and, of course, had a pronounced stutter, which is today known to be a common side effect of forcing a leftie to become a rightie.
In 1974, Time magazine ran an article about a young Japanese girl who was taken to a psychiatric hospital with unusual tics. It was revealed that she convulsed because she was left-handed and her mother’s attempts to rid her of the defect included binding her left hand so she was unable to use it.
In a 2015 article in The Independent, Alisha Sands from Oklahoma was curious about why her four year old son, who had always been a leftie was suddenly writing with his right hand. Zayde had started pre-K at Oakes Elementary, and when his mum asked him why he was suddenly using his right hand, he raised his left hand and told her “this one’s bad”. After sending a letter to Zayde’s teacher, she received a note with an article explaining that left handedness was evil and associated with the devil.
And this is all to do with a few passages in the bible. Well, around 200.
Religion aside, the struggle for lefties is very real, which is why Ned Flanders opened The Leftorium, selling left-handed products to Springfield residents including Bart Simpson.
And unless you write in a right to left language such as Arabic, you’re likely to smudge your entire page. Of course, computers have changed all that but if you’re a leftie and into calligraphy, well, good luck to you.
According to the Guardian’s Mark King, himself a leftie, Lefties are more likely to amputate their fingers with power-tools, develop RSI, break their bones, and suffer from learning difficulties.
Because pretty much everything is made for right handers.
But the consequences of trying to force a lefty to become a right include prolonged Bed-wetting, Stuttering, withdrawal, poor memory, spelling difficulties and even neuroses.
But look, the world is changing. Not for my mum, of course, she’s staying put right where she is.
And if you think that left handers are always disadvantaged? No way, man. In sport, a southpaw can be dangerous because right handers aren’t used to playing them, so they’re often taken by surprise. For example, 7 of the 16 top world fencers are left-handed. The Italian Olympic champion Edoardo Mangiarotti was a right hander but his father forced him to fence with his left hand as he considered it an advantage. He wasn’t wrong. Mangiarotti competed at five Olympics and won 13 medals, including six gold.
Oh, and don’t forget that August 13 is International Left-Handers Day, which fell on a Friday this year.
PS. If you spill salt, or even if you are using salt, don’t forget to toss some over your left shoulder, because that’s where evil lurks.
Do you know the opposite of sinister? It’s Dexter.
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Sound engineering and original music by Jeff Willis. You can find his tunes on Spotify and iTunes
Produced by Jo Vraca. You can find my books on Amazon
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