The Ups and Downs of “Left” and “Right”

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Left has gotten a bad rap throughout history. Because of overwhelming majority of people are right-handed (most estimates are in the range of 85 to 90 percent), left-handedness has come to be associated with weakness — the word left itself is descended from an Old English word meaning “weak.”

Left-handedness was therefore until recently often seen as undesirable, and even well into the twentieth century, parents and teachers often forced left-handed children to use their right hand for writing, eating, and other basic activities. Even now, “a left-handed compliment” (also described as “a backhanded compliment”), refers to an ostensibly positive comment that is explicitly or implicitly an insult.

Idioms that employ left to describe an undesirable or unusual situation include “two left feet,” referring to a clumsy dancer, and “out of left field,” meaning an unexpected comment or idea. (The latter, however, is not necessarily derogatory.) We also use left to refer to something that remains behind as a result of deliberate action or accidental oversight. Another common idiom with a negative connotation, one using this sense of left, is “left a lot to be desired.”

The equivalents of left in other languages have similarly pejorative meanings. Gauche, the French word for left, also means “tactless, crude, socially inept” — in English as well as French. The opposite, droit, is the root word of maladroit, which means “incompetent, inept, unsuitable.” (English has adopted and adapted that term as adroit — literally, “to the right,” and meaning “appropriate” — as well as maladroit.)

Sinister, from the Latin word for “on the left,” came to be associated with inauspicious or unlucky events, and was borrowed by French and later English to mean “evil.” In heraldry, it refers to the right-hand side of a coat of arms (the left-hand side from the point of view of the bearer of a shield, from which the coat of arms derived), opposite the dexter, or right, side. From the Latin element dextr-, meaning “on the right,” borrowed into English as dexter, we also get the adjective dexterous, meaning “clever, skillful.”

Right itself means “good, correct,” and that’s the originally connotation when referring to the right hand — it’s the correct one to use. Among the many idioms suggesting the positive connotation are “right-hand man” and “the right stuff.” (The use of right and leftto refer to political ideology, each often capitalized when referring to adherents as a collective, came from the revolutionary era in France: The conservative party in the National Assembly called itself the Droit, the “right” party. The liberal faction, in opposition, came to be referred to as the “left.”)

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7 thoughts on “The Ups and Downs of “Left” and “Right””

  1. An interesting recap.

    «Another common idiom with a negative connotation, one using this sense of left, is “left a lot to be desired.”»

    Surely this ‘left’ – the past participle of the verb ‘leave’ – is unrelated to the negative ‘left’ (as in handedness) under discussion.

    The only thing they have in common etymologically is Old English.

  2. Ouch! More negatives for the left than the right. Thanks for all of these well-thought-out examples. (This is the type of blog where I second guess my hyphens in my comment…oh, the pressure!)

  3. Let us not forget the expression “Put your best foot forward,” meaning to do your best or make a good first impression, since the “best” foot was the right foot (from an old superstition that to put your left boot on first was unlucky). And, of course, everyone’s favorite “left” thing: LEFTOVERS! (chuckle)

    If I understand correctly, Mark, your assertion that the “left” and “right” in politics comes to us from revolution-era France may be in error. It was explained to me long ago that the (I can’t recall whether was the US House of Representatives or US Senate), which has an aisle down its middle, was the genesis of the term. The liberal and conservative factions of that body divided themselves over an issue, one side taking the left side of the aisle and the other team taking the right side, and so it has remained to this day.

    Mind you, I wasn’t there to see it happen, as I was out of town negotiating pricing on left-handed monkey wrenches at the time, but that’s how it was explained to me.

  4. I always enjoy your articles. When I read your explanation for the use of the terms “left” and “right” at the time of the French Revolution, I recalled that in the National Assembly the two parties sat together, the radicals on the left and the royalists on the right. I’m told that this was the origin of the terms in politics. The left was as viewed from the speaker’s chair, I believe.

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