My Left Hand: a Sinister Tale

I hope you appreciate how lucky you are to be right-handed. Of course you might actually be left-handed, in which case my apologies for the assumption, but statistically you’re probably right-handed. You’re also probably right-footed (90% of right-handers are also right-footed, and about 50% of left-footers). You might not have been aware that footedness is a thing. If sports involving kicking balls don’t occupy a position of any importance in your life, the concept may not have occurred to you. If you’re not sure which is your dominant foot, go kick the nearest person in the shin with each foot (not simultaneously, you don’t want to get hurt) and see which one hurts them more.

I’m entirely lopsided: both left-handed and left-footed. I was quite proud of this when I was a child. I felt it made me stand out. As a football fan, I was impressed by how left-footed players like Ryan Giggs always seemed to be so quick and dynamic and creative. My footballing career did not quite follow his trajectory, mind you. But mostly I just liked being different from everyone else. And I still do. But as I got older, I began to realise that it wasn’t so easy being left-handed…

It first really occurred to me when, a few years into secondary school, a teacher said Oh, it must be really awkward trying to write with these desks. And I realised that it was! The school had those old-fashioned desks with the armrest on the right, and at the time it never occurred to me that I was one of the few in my classes whose left elbow dangled freely in space with nothing to support. And it was probably around the same time that I became aware that most people didn’t have a permanent ink stain on the left side of their left hand. And to this day, when I write on a whiteboard, my words inevitably slope downwards. It’s hard keeping them in a straight line when you can’t see the last one you wrote. And of course there are the minor everyday gripes about tin-openers, scissors, spiral-bound notebooks, mugs with funny messages on one side, international arm-wrestiling tournaments et al.

But it’s not so bad. I feel lucky I was born in the 80s, and therefore didn’t have to deal with the methods of less-enlightened days when people had their left hands smacked with metre-sticks or tied behind their back for having the audacity to write with them. I supposed I can understand why people used to get freaked out by left-handedness (and some still do, judging by the number of people who ask with amazement Are you left-handed!? when they see me write). Throughout history we’ve demonstrated a ready ability to be suspicious and terrified of anything slightly out of the ordinary. So many cultures and belief systems emphasise that the right is good and that the left is bad, or at least just a little… off. Christianity often mentions the right hand of God as the absolute most desirable position in the universe. Many magic systems differntiate between a left-handed system, which is darker, more mysterious, and sometimes more evil, and a right-handed system for more beneficial, altogether more pleasant, magic.

But where the prejudice against leftness is most evident is in language. I was quite shocked when I first learned that the Italian word for left is sinistra, coming from the Latin sinister. I mean yes, I am slightly sinister, but most left-handers aren’t! How terribly unfair of the English language to take this benign word for left and twist it into something… sinister! And we’ve done it with French too: gauche in English means awkward, tactless, adjectives which describe me only some of the time.

At least most people aren’t aware of the left-sinister-gauche connection, but think of how many other words and phrases blatantly discriminate against leftness as a concept. If something’s strange or unexpected, it’s leftfield or comes out of left field. Now while this originates in baseball (because, I’m reliably informed, a fielder on that side of the diamond has the longest throw to first base), I don’t think it’d have taken off as it has if right field were farthest from first base. There aren’t many other baseball terms which are widely-used on this side of the Atlantic. If you can’t dance you have two left feet, even if having two right feet would make things just as difficult. In American English you give someone a left-handed compliment if you want to ironically criticise them. And it’s always the left hand that doesn’t know what the right hand is doing, not vice versa!

But if that wasn’t bad enough, look at that word right. Just look at it, so smug, so holier-than-thou! And why wouldn’t it be, because it’s always right! What more needs to be said about how deifed rightness is other than pointing out that in English, right means correct! Loathsome little word, and all his relatives! You ok buddy? Everything all RIGHT!? In other languages the word for right or relate words can also mean straight, or true, or direct: all the things leftness apparently isn’t. In the Irish language for example, the word for right is deis, and nice is deas, uncoincidentally (you can take my word for it that they also sound similar).

But there are still so many other ways English makes right the annoyingly perfect little brother of words. Those morally good things we’re entitled to to make our lives better? Rights! If you’re going on a journey, whatever you do, don’t turn left and get lost: go right there! And just as it will to insult leftness, English will happily steal from other languages to praise rightness. Not only does gauche mean clumsy, but the French for right (droit) gives us adroit in English, meaning clever or skilful! If you’re especially skilful with your hands (both!), you have great dexterity, which comes from the Latin dexter, meaning right hand! And no-one’s ever going to name their son Sinister. Even the word ambidextrous (using both hands equally well) actually literally means having two right hands!!

infuriating, I know, but you know what’s really going on, don’t you? They’re jealous of us, so they lash out with childish idioms and complex etymologies! I mean, just look at this list of 100 great left-handers: no wonder they’re jealous (Uri Geller! Ricky Martin! Chewbacca!!)                                              

And 8 of the 44 US presidents (Garfield, Hoover, Truman, Ford, Reagan, OG Bush, Clinton and Obama) have been left-handed. Though it’s going to be 8 out of 45 soon.

So next August 13th, as you celebrate International Left-Handers’ Day (and more importantly, my birthday), remember that they envy our difference from their lateral conventions. And all you right-handed normies… could you cut this page for me please? I can’t use these scissors!

23 thoughts on “My Left Hand: a Sinister Tale

  1. Also interesting to note that, in the parlance of the powers that be in this country, those of use who are left-wing and politcally active, have been dubbed the ‘sinister fringe’.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I am a proud leftie! I can relate to your whole article. Especially when they see me writing, the incredulous look followed by “Ohhh. You’re LEFT handed??”

    My unscientific theory is that we make up about 6% of the population. I came to this conclusion after teaching school for several years in which I observed, in a typical class of 33 students, I usually had 2 left-handers.

    But we are in good company, as the list proves. I have always been proud that one of my favorite authors, Lewis Carroll, was a leftie. Thanks for this article 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • Always glad to find out someone’s a leftie. Anytime I’m in front of a class, or am part of some kind of seminar, one of the first things I do is look around to see how many people are left-handed, and 6% sounds about right :).

      Liked by 1 person

  3. No problem for me, either, as I too am “entirely lopsided”. The only other thing being left handed is good for, apart from typing, in my experience, is driving a right-hand drive car – wrestling with the gear stick used to take more strength than steering. And it did once enable me to catch a “left-field” bunch of keys my bastard boss hurled at me, without even looking.

    When I was at technical school in the early 60s we used to get handwriting lessons. My English teacher would come past and whisk my sheet of paper straight. I recall keeping on writing, just diagonally, which annoyed her. I would like to think this was a silent, courageous protest but actually I was incapable of writing any other way. Books are back to front, doors are back to front, irons are mostly back to front. You have to buy special scissors. Bah!

    We also had music teacher who supervised our school dinners. I ate with my knife and fork right-handed (having been forced to in infancy) but spoon and fork left-handed. has only an approximate idea where my mouth is.


  4. One more leftie here! And, being a woman, I’m a minority within a minority, since statistics say that only one out of three left-handed people is female. I can relate to your whole article, and I can still remember those school desks you’re referring to, which back then I considered a totally fascistic thing. (As a real leftie, I abhor fascism in all its expressions)

    I’m also aware of the linguistic connections in English, although some years ago, I also came across the term “southpaw”. Could you enlighten me a little about that? Is it just a colloquialism, a slang word, a slur, or what?

    And it goes without saying that they are all jealous of us.

    Liked by 1 person

    • It’s interesting to know about the gender difference, I wasn’t aware of that! “Southpaw” is an interesting word. It’s pretty neutral now, and is generally used an informal word for left-hander. It’s probably still best known as a boxing term, though it’s originally from baseball, as a left-handed pitcher would have the left side of their body facing the “south” end of the stadium. But even if it’s now a friendly term, I’m sure, as it uses the word “paw,” it wasn’t originally so complimentary!


  5. […] Over time, I figured out that it was referring to writing in some way, and later still, I realised that it meant what I knew as joined-up writing. By that stage I’d probably given up thinking about joined-up writing. It’s funny how important it seemed to me as a child, how it felt like you could only be taken seriously as an adult if you never lifted your pen from the page once while writing. I used to get quite stressed as I found joined-up writing a little hard and was quite slow it (I didn’t think to blame being left-handed). […]


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