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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-, corkyhanded, 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_libermanAnatoly 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 [email protected]; he’ll do his best to avoid responding with “origin unknown.”

Recent Comments

  1. Michael

    How about American “south paw”? for lefties?

  2. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Ian Wardle, Phi Beta Kappa and Sarah Noonan, Lauren. Lauren said: Left-handed? Feel left out? Well, you are. http://ow.ly/2HJys […]

  3. felagund

    In Arabic, the word for left, “yasár,” is often not used in the spoken dialects. They substitute instead “shamál,” which is really the word for “north.” This is, to the best of my knowledge, because most old maps were made in Cairo and had Mecca at the top: north was just on the left. Arabic culture, like most South and Western Asian cultures, views the left hand as especially inauspicious, as one eats with the right and wipes one’s butt with the left.

  4. marian morgan

    My first encounter with your blog – and will try and find the two books mentioned. I am known to my friends as the ultimate pedant, (to others others as the most boring person in the world when on the subject of words). I was tickled pink to find it in The Browser. Oh joy, I shall check every Wednesday. Thank you.

  5. […] Latin word “sinister,” which meant left or on the left side. In many languages — from Bavarian to Irish — the word for left-handed people also meant “crooked,” “deficient,” […]

  6. […] Left-handedness and southpaw.  In my old post on south and north, I discussed the origin of southpaw.  The word has been explained in a satisfactory way (there is even an article in Wikipedia on it).  Curiously, north-handed is a word for “left-handedness” in some dialects.  I made no attempt to list all the adjectives for “left-handed” occurring in my database.  Some are obscure (for example, dawky, recorded in the neighborhood of Leeds), others add nothing new to what I have said.  Hoosier. Many thanks to the Historical Society of Indiana for sending me an article from their journal Traces.  Since it deals with history rather than etymology, I found no material in it that would make me modify my opinion.  Weird sisters in Macbeth.  In my post on words with the letter groups ier, ear, and the like, I said that the word weird might have disappeared if Shakespeare had not used it.  The comment that in the texts of the play weird is spelled weyward and so on (clearly under the influence of wayward) changes nothing in the subsequent history of this adjective.  The same holds for the disyllabic pronunciation of the word in I:3,30 (that is why some editors, beginning with Theobald, 1740, put a dieresis over the letter i in weird).  It is no longer possible to discover why weird (the word that almost certainly was meant) could be pronounced in two syllables.  Weird in the form in which we know it occurs many times in the works of Shakespeare and his contemporaries.  I was glad to hear from Masha Bell, a fellow-in-arms for reforming English spelling.  Yes, indeed, many of our spellings owe their existence to the illiterate compositors and printers, often not even native speakers of English.  Stephen Goranson has found an interesting early verse in which kybosh means “lash” and is used with the verb put on.  There is still some distance to cover from putting on a kybosh in the direct sense of the word and the figurative meaning “to put an end to something.”  Wicked as an adverb (as in it is wicked awesome).  See very early examples in the OED, though in Middle English the word had not yet acquired the sense “very.” […]

  7. […] or “socially awkward.” This semantic evolution apparently had something to do with a prejudice against left-handed people. (Similarly, the Latin word for left is “sinister.”)  So gauche is an example of a […]

  8. Sean

    I realize this post is nearing 8 years old. Having taken more than six years of Latin, it’s simply not true to say that dexter and sinister are comparative or superlative.

    Sinister is a first and second declension adjective and it declines as such in the masculine:

    sinister – nom.
    sinistri – gen.
    sinestro – dat.
    sinestrum – acc.
    sinestro – abl.

    In order to make it a comparative, it would look like this (in masculine/feminine cases):

    Sinistrior – nom.
    Sinistrioris – gen.
    Sinistriori – dat.
    Sinistriorem – acc.
    Sinistriore – abl.

    In order to make it a superlative, it would look like this in the masculine:

    Sinistrissimus – nom.
    Sinistrissimi – gen.
    Sinistrissimo – dat.
    Sinistrissimum – acc.
    Sinistrissimo – abl.

    This is just for everyone else out there, so you know. Latin doesn’t use “er” as a comparative. For example, the words for father and mother are “pater” and “mater.” And nobody thinks, “Well, does this mean they are more fatherly or motherly than someone else??” To be honest, viewing Latin in this way makes no sense. In fact, the “-er” ending is relatively common, especially in the third declension.

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