Left or Right? Are we right behind you, or do you feel left out?
Left handLike many others, the English language has a preference towards right-handed people and a prejudice against the left-handed in its vocabulary.
This dates back a long way, as the words we have for what is right – that is, morally correct as opposed to what is sinister and gauche have been in the language for centuries. In Old English, the word riht meant right and just, much as it does today. It also had the meaning of straight. Cognates in European languages include recht in Dutch and German, ret in Danish and rätt in Swedish. From this we also have the verb rectify - to make things right, and the noun rectitude – moral correctness. If you are direct, you are straight and honest, not shifty and untrustworthy.
In contrast, the word left has much more negative connotations as it derives from the Old English lyft/left meaning weak, useless and foolish. The idea that the left signifies bad luck is present in the use of Greek, Roman and Etruscan augury, whereby fortune-telling was conducted by observing the auspices, usually the flight of birds. Birds which appeared on right foretold good fortune, auspicious events, whereas birds flying by on the left gave sinister omens. Sinister, relating to the left hand, took on the meaning of evil or unlucky and in modern English has the similar meaning of threatening harm or being treacherous or wicked.
Latin and French words for right and left have added further to the English lexicon. The name Dexter comes from the Latin word for right, and from this we now have the adjective dexterous (manually skilful) and the noun dexterity (skilfulness). If you can use both hands equally well, you are not bi-handed but are ambidextrous (doubly skilful) that is, you have two right hands!
French words which have entered the language include the word for left, gauche, which in English means awkward and clumsy. Related to this is the adjective gawky, meaning ungainly and socially inept, which comes from gawk, Yorkshire dialect for left hand, possibly from gaulick – the Gaulish (French) hand, and therefore both gauche and sinister! A synonym for gauche is maladroit, which means badly-skilled, literally, not right. Adroit, though, from à droit (according to the right) is a synonym for dexterous, skilful.
Lefties fare no better if we look at idioms and informal expressions. A clumsy person is said to have two left feet: clearly, this is the polar opposite of being ambidextrous! In other languages, clumsy people have two left hands amongst which are included Bulgarian (две леви ръце), French (deux mains gauches), German (zwei linke Hände) and Polish (dwie lewe ręce). If you wake up feeling moody and irritable, you get out of bed on the wrong side. Although now it doesn’t really matter which physical side of the bed you actually got out of, in the past, the wrong side was obviously the sinister left side. This has its cognates with the idea of getting up on the left foot in French (se lever du pied gauche), German (mit dem linken Fuß aufstehen) and Spanish (levantarse con el pie izquierdo).
Similarly, if people get off on the wrong foot, they make a bad start to a relationship or some kind of project. However, if you put your best foot forward, you make a good impression and do something as well as you can.
Shakespeare has an early example of the latter expression in King John :
Nay, but make haste; the better foot before. (King John: Act IV, Scene 2. 1595?).
Being a Roman Catholic was considered to be a highly dubious practice by devout Protestants, and Irish Catholics, or left footers, were said to dig with the left foot on the spade.
Another phrase is a left-handed compliment, which purports to be praise, but is actually a criticism.
Finally, there is the idea that the right hand is for eating, drinking and writing and that the left hand, by contrast, is unclean, and is/was used for performing ablutions. This is still prevalent in a number of different cultures and is believed to be the origin of the phrase cack-handed (excrement-handed) which once again means clumsy.
Now choose from the following words and expressions to complete the text. (Hover over the questions to reveal the answers - tap on mobile devices).
Potter's wheelSmith had always wanted to be a potter, but despite being able to use his left and right hands equally well, the fact that he was ______ didn’t improve his early ______ efforts at making pots. His ceramics came out of the kiln looking lopsided, half-finished or decidedly unlike pots. He was certainly ______ enough, as his attempts at sculpture and making models had not been without promise, and he was pretty skilful with his hands. Desperate to ______ his failings he approached Harvey McGarvey a reclusive, but brilliant craftsman, who lived hermit-like in the middle of the forest. McGarvey was known for his moral ______ and the fact that he did not suffer fools gladly. As a man who liked his own privacy, he had learnt to deal ______ with the public and with inquisitive passers-by by being as ______ and blunt as possible and basically scaring them away. Local gossip had it that he wasn’t quite ______ in the head. It was therefore a bit of a surprise when Smith was invited to his house on the condition that it was done in the strictest secrecy. When McGarvey answered the door Smith saw him tossing a newly-baked ceramic jug from hand to hand with astonishing ______ . “It’s too hot to hold for long.” McGarvey explained. “Come in out of the cold.” Smith gratefully accepted his host’s invitation, but was shocked in the change in McGarvey’s demeanour when he shut and bolted the door behind him. “You wanted to come here,” he roared with a ______ laugh. “Now, let’s see how you like it!”
Choose from the following words and expressions to complete the text.
- get off on the wrong foot
- put her best foot forward
- have two left feet
- got out of bed on the wrong side
- left-handed compliment
On the catwalkAs a tall, but _______ teenager, Kate had lacked confidence and was known for being _______ in public. Consequently, she was amazed to be approached by a talent scout who put her name forward for an interview with a modelling agency. She was very nervous on the day of the interview, but was determined to _______ and make a good impression. When she got to the interview she was led to the head of the agency who immediately fired off a number of very _______ questions about her age, weight and height. “Well, you’re certainly tall enough,” he muttered. Kate thought this was a bit of a _______ , but she didn’t wish to _______ , so she agreed that he was _______ and that she was, in fact, very tall. “Still, height alone won’t make you a model,” the agent grunted. He was nursing a headache and had clearly _______ that morning. “We need to see what you look like on the catwalk. Maybe you’ll sashay down the aisle like Naomi Campbell, but I get the feeling you’ll have _______ .” Kate was amazed to have finally met someone more socially _______ than she was, and actually laughed at his rudeness. “Let’s see if I can _______ that impression,” she said. She got up, feeling more self-assured than she ever had. “Show me the catwalk!” she cried. She knew she would be able to impress him despite himself, and she duly did when she strutted off as if she owned the place. It was an _______ start to what was to become a brilliant career.
Sources Ayto, John. Dictionary on Word Origins London: Bloomsbury, 1990. Skeat, Walter.
An Etymological Dictionary of The English Language Mineola, New York: Dover Publications, 2005. Harper, Douglas. (2001-2014)
Online Etymological Dictionary (Online) http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Handedness Handedness 2014
http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Pottery_wheel.JPG "London 2012 Models" By Nick Webb (Flickr: DSC_4652) [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
"Raczka4". Licensed under CC BY 2.5 via Wikimedia Commons - http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Raczka4.jpg#mediaviewer/File:Raczka4.jpg