I was planning to launch a new regular feature for if all else fails… today, but then I heard over the radio this morning (yes, I sometimes get information from other locations than the interwebs) that today is International Left Handers’ Day. I couldn’t let the opportunity pass.
Lefties have always been discriminated against. In ancient Hebrew culture the left side of the body was considered unclean and during the Middle Ages many lefties were executed for witchcraft simply because they preferred to use a different hand when wielding a sword, swinging an axe, or brushing their teeth. (Hang on. Did people brush their teeth in the Middle Ages?)
Throughout all the British Empire, former and current, we still drive on the left side of the road because knights in a joust held their lances on their right. On the other hand (see what I did there?) this could be considered a victory for Lefties as we consider the left side of the road to be the right one when driving, while we consider driving on the right side like the Yanks completely wrong. (Shame on America for discriminating against lefties like that!)
Let us not even start on scissors, computer mice, musical instruments, can openers and even corkscrews which are all designed for right-handed people to use and a right pain in the behind if you’re a southpaw (BTW, living in the Southern Hemisphere myself I really wonder what’s so bad about the south that it was allocated to lefties). And have you tried writing from left to right using your left hand? I wonder how many lefties lost marks for poor writing at school after achieving a task that should actually be impossible.
This discrimination shines through in language as well. The Latin-speaking Romans used the words dextra for right and sinistram for left (Latin scholars reading this must please excuse me if I mixed up nouns and adjectives there – blame Google Translate). Today, “dexterous” means able, graceful, skilful; “sinister” means dubious, untrustworthy, maybe even evil. And when someone is equally able with both hands? Ambidextrous. I don’t know about you, but I only see one side represented in that word!
If someone has two left feet he’s clumsy (as opposed to all the people with two right feet who are paragons of grace and…well…dexterity). Unexpected difficulties always come in from left field, and people or ideas from the same place are considered weird. (Lefties are apparently more prone to develop schizophrenia, so perhaps calling left-field weird is not that far off.)
If you’re having a bad day in English, you say you got out of bed with the wrong foot, but the related expression in German, Spanish, French and Hungarian all specify this wrong foot to be the left foot. A left-handed compliment is a compliment that actually isn’t and if you’re left-wing you’re one of those crazy commie-hippy-liberals who want to ruin the economy and destroy healthy moral values.
But lefties get their own back. Left-handed people tend to be more creative and are much better with visual puzzles than right-handers. Southpaws also have a distinct advantage in combat sports, and any other sport where two opponents face off against each other, like tennis, squash, and even cricket. That’s because they attack from a direction righties aren’t used to defending. And port, that beverage of the gods, is always passed to the left, so that side can’t be all bad.
Famous lefties include Billy the Kid, Alexander the Great, Friedrich Nietzsche, Queen Victoria, Benjamin Franklin, Mahatma Ghandi and Joan of Arc. (Jack the Ripper and George Bush also, but let’s not hold that against the rest.) Also Marie Curie, Albert Einstein, Henry Ford, Bill Gates and “Buzz” Aldrin. And then there’s Leonardo Da Vinci (but he was actually ambidextrous according to many sources), MC Escher (that explains a few things), Charlie Chaplin, Morgan Freeman, Wolverine (sorry, Hugh Jackman), Whoopi Goldberg (again, explains a lot), the Olsen twins, Oprah Winfrey and Bart Simpson (yeah, I know he’s fictional. Your point?) Left-handed authors include Douglas Adams and Lewis Carroll (I’m gaining understanding in leaps and bounds here), Peter Benchley, Mark Twain and H.G. Wells.
But my favourite historical lefty was a biblical assassin. In the book of Judges we read of Ehud. In a time when everyone wore their swords on their left (for easy drawing with the right hand), Ehud managed to sneak a weapon past an oppressive king’s security by wearing it on his right. He came at the king from left field, so to speak, and showed him you underestimate lefties at your peril. (Incidentally, this event also gave rise to the full-body pat-down employed today by law enforcement and security forces the world over, so next time you’re being groped by airport security, be sure to thank the nearest lefty for that 😉 )
(In the spirit of full disclosure: I’m actually right-handed, but that doesn’t mean I can’t throw the lefties a bone. After all, they only have this one day a year to feel special…)
- All images in this post courtesy of the official Left Handers’ Day website.
- All comments not posted using only the left hand will automatically be redirected to Spam.
- Be sure to tune in again next week for the first ever edition of Percussive Etymology.