The Sinister Influence of the Left Hand
By Anatoly Liberman
There is something righteous about the right hand: it is supposed to point in the right direction and do everything right. In older Indo-European, even a special word existed for “right hand,” as evidenced by Greek dexios (stress on the last syllable), Latin dexter, and others. A strong association connects the right hand with the south and the left hand with the north. Someone standing with his face turned to the rising sun (for example, while praying), will have his right hand stretched to the south and his left hand to the north. Old Irish tuath meant both “north” and “left” (when facing east). This case is not unique. Here is a variant of the most common definition of “left” in our dictionaries: “Connected with that part of the body which is situated to the west when one faces north.” Compare right: “straight, direct, not curved or bent; further from the main part of the heart.” In an old post on the etymology of north, I discussed the tie between the concepts “left” and “north” and the possibility of explaining north as meaning “left.” If Sanskrit naraka- “the kingdom of the dead” is related to Engl. north (which is uncertain), we can assume that in the opinion of the ancient Indians the Other Word was a cold place, rather than hell with its eternal fire, frying pans, and boiling pots, as we see it in medieval European pictures. Reference to “down” in north and some words for “left” cannot be excluded either. But the most noticeable thing is the paucity of Indo-European words for “right hand,” as opposed to the abundance of names coined for its opposite.
A first look at Latin dexter “right” and sinister “left” shows that both end in -er, an element reminiscent of, though not identical with, -er in Engl. smaller, longer, and the like. Both Latin words are comparative degrees. However, it is unclear what their bases designate (more than what?). A right-handed man emerges from language studies as adroit, and the left-handed one as awkward. The derivation of many words for “left” poses almost insoluble problems. Engl. left (from lyft-; originally “weak, worthless,” but the origin of left is debatable) has nothing to do with the verb leave and it past tense (or past participle) left. It looks like Russian levyi and its Latin congener laevus; yet it is not related to them. The Old English for “left” was winstre, familiar from its modern Scandinavian cognates: Norwegian vinstre, Swedish vänster, and Danish venstre (Old and Modern Icelandic vinstri). All of them end in -tre/-tri/-tra resembling -ter in dexter and sinister and may mean “more friendly, more auspicious.” If so, this is a rare case of ascribing something good to the left side. The Romans treated the left side as more favorable and faced south when taking auspices, so that the left side was to the east, or fortunate quarter; also it was closer to the heart.
The Goths called the left side hlidumei, from an etymological point of view “the weakest, the most crooked,” perhaps with the suffix of the superlative degree, but this part of the interpretation has been contested. Italian manco “left” has developed from “crippled, deficient” (the same root appears in French manchot “a person having one hand or one arm”) The Standard German for “left” is link (perhaps from “awkward” or “lame”), while Bavarians have lerz among other similar-sounding forms, and elsewhere one hears glink, from gelink, and slink, that is, s-link. (Reinforcing s- is equally typical of English dialects; that is why many people believe that slang has been derived from language.) British dialects, especially in Ireland and the north, display a great profusion of words for “left” beginning with c-/k-: keg-handed, cork(y)-handed, corry-handed, car-handed, cat-handed, coochy-handed, and so forth. The source of most, if not of all of them, can be found in Danish kejte “left” (Swedish dialectal kaitu also exists). This is the word that ended up as the first element of American Engl. cater-corner, changed in the Midwest by folk etymology to kitty- ~ kiddy-corner. In many northern British dialects, cater means “diagonal,” so again “bent, crooked.” (Cater-corner was the subject of another old post in this blog.) The numerous variants—cat-, keg-, corky-handed, and so forth—appear to be attempts to make the otherwise opaque word sound like something familiar, even if meaningless, for what is cat- or corky-handed? One can understand why Italians use mana stanca, literally “tired hand,” for “left hand,” but keg-handed…. Wallet-handed and t’other hand afore, which also occur or at one time were current in British local speech, make better sense. The Irish word kitoque “left-handed” goes back to Old Irish cittach and has the same origin as cater- in cater-corner (from Scandinavian).
Then there is the much-discussed gaulick-handed, competing in northern British dialects with gaulish-, gallack-, and gallick-handed. French gauche “left” and Engl. gawk(y) immediately spring to mind. The origin of those words, though it has been debated for more than a century and a half, is still unascertained. Despite the cautiously negative attitude of the OED toward this etymology, gawk may be a variant of the older noun gowk “cuckoo.” The attempt to present gawk as a contraction of gaulick carries little conviction, and the origin of gaulick remains unknown. We cannot even be sure whether it is an English or French word. Gaul- is either its root or an element taken for the word’s root, for otherwise gaulish would not have been formed. By contrast, gauche may be a borrowing from Germanic, though the etymons proposed for it in dictionaries should be taken with a whole pinch of salt. Once again we are confronted with an array of unexplained adjectives for “left.” The reason may be that such words are sometimes slangy, and slang is notoriously hard to etymologize. Our guides—“weak,” ”bent downward,” “crooked,” “turned in the direction of the north,” “inauspicious,” or conversely, “friendly; favorable,” the latter as in the practice of the augurs—fail us. It may be that gaulick and gauche are related, but we are unable to pinpoint the nature of that relationship. One of them or both may mean “weak” or “crooked,” or “inauspicious,” but again we lack the resources to detect the sought-for meaning in their form.
Obviously, etymology is partial toward right-handed people. In playing favorites, it follows nature that made most of us right-handed. When it comes to physiology, it pays off to remain with the crowd. But not everything is lost. We no longer torment left-handed people by making them switch to the other side. Also, a colleague in my department is left-handed, and his daughter gave him a cup with the words engraved on it: “Lefties are the best lovers.” If this is a true statement, the corky-handed have more than made up for the trick nature played on the hemispheres of their brain.
Anatoly Liberman is the author of Word Origins…And How We Know Them as well as An Analytic Dictionary of English Etymology: An Introduction. His column on word origins, The Oxford Etymologist, appears here, each Wednesday. Send your etymology question to him care of firstname.lastname@example.org; he’ll do his best to avoid responding with “origin unknown.”