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This article is from the Lefthanders FAQ, by Barry D. Benowitz b.benowitz@telesciences.com with numerous contributions by others.

30. Why is left handedness considered something sinister?

First, let me say that the Latin word for left is sinister. The
connection between the the English word and the Latin word are
obvious, but this reasoning breaks down when other languages are
examined. Raymond <vges@smtp.belspo.be> tells the following
story: Roman priests/fortune-tellers used to point a square wooden
frame towards the sky and thus watch birds fly by. If the birds came
from the left (sinister),it meant trouble (sinister).If they came from
the right (latin dexter if I remember well),everything was OK.

Raymond <vges@smtp.belspo.be> also tells me that the French word
"sinistre" means sinister with the obvious Latin root. Also, someone
who is considered not skillful is called "gauche" (left) in French.

Rob Jordan <rjordan@u.washington.edu> offers this explanation. It
also has to do with shaking hands. It seems that one explanation
for the origin of shaking hands (according to a Latin teacher at the
high school I went to) is that people would shake hands on meeting
to show that they didn't have a dagger (or similar weapon) in their
(right) hand so they couldn't stab you right off as they met you.
However if you were left handed, you could shake someone's hand
(with your right hand) and still be able to effectively use your
left hand to stab someone. Therefore left-handed people were considered
potentially more dangerous and "sinister".

Erica <erica@netvision.net.il> tells me that in Hebrew, "Yemin" is
right and "Smoll" is left. A right-handed person is
referred to as "yemani," which means "right-handed;" a left-handed
person, on the other hand (no pun intended. Well, ok, maybe it
intentional), is referred to as "Eetair yad Yemino" or "Eetair" for
short, which means, in essence, a person who is not right-handed.
(Connotation: a shortcoming).

Balthasar <bi@inside.net> tells me that in german you call
someone 'linkisch' (meaning 'leftish') if he/she is either weird,
strange or even mean in an antisocial sense.

Wei-Hwa Huang <whuang@cco.caltech.edu> responds that a bit of
research on Chinese etymology has turned up some interesting
facts. The Chinese word for "left," when traced back to
ancient pictograms, is a drawing of a hand with a drawing that
means "work." The idea apparently was that the left hand did
work by helping the right hand. Bruce Balden
<balden@wimsey.comd> points out that the symbol "gong1" means
work because it looks like a carpenter's set square, which
would be held in the left hand (of a right handed person) while
the other hand draws or saws.

Wei-Hwa resumes: On the other hand (pun intended), the
character for "right" was a picture of a hand next to a mouth,
indicating that the ancient Chinese probably used the right hand to eat.

Now an interesting fact emerges. Although there are many more words
derived from a hand on the right side than there are words on the left
(i.e., whenever a new word was formed and it needed a hand, it was
invariably on the right side), at some point all the "right-handed"
words were flipped to their mirror image! This happened sometime in
the last 2000 years, and now all words that are "hand"-derived have
the hand on the left side. (For etymology buffs, these characters are
not to be confused with the ones with the actual "hand" radical, which
went a different route.) It is an interesting fact to note that since
Chinese writing proceeds top to bottom, then right to left, that
left-handed writing may actually be easier. (Virtually all Chinese
writers are taught to write with the right hand only, though...
traditional Chinese calligraphy is done without the hand touching the

Paul Batey <pbatey@laurel.ocs.mq.edu.au> tells us that an ancient
Romany Gypsy word for left is bongo, which means evil.

Feico Nater <effect@worldaccess.nl> provide these insights:

In Dutch, Recht means right, straight, privilege (as in human rights),
Link means left, stupid, awkward, but also keen, skilled. Een linke
jongen means a skilled criminal, a bad criminal, or a keen man.

Edward A. Spaans <spaans@orion-sys.com> offers the following idiom:

De linker, de flinker
De rechter, de slechter

In Dutch, the 'er' as in linker, flinker, rechter, slechter' is the
superlative. The meaning of 'slecht' is bad, criminal. The words
'link' and 'recht' are assigned a quantitative content here, which
makes strict translation a bit difficult. The idiom could be roughly
translated as:

The more (to the, or possessing of) left, the better,
The more (to the, or possessing of) right, the worse

Paddy O'Neill <jq01@dial.pipex.com> reports that the Gaelic
(Irish) word for lefthanded is "Ciotach". It has two meanings as

1) lefthanded
2) Awkward or difficult

Chris Owen <C.J.Owen@cs.cf.ac.uk> reports that in Welsh
(Cymraeg), the word for left is 'chwith', which also means

According to Simone Cortesi <cortesi@venus.it>, In Italian, the word
for clumsy is "maldestro", the word for training is "addestrare", an
evil face is a "faccia sinistra", and according to your insurance
company a car crash is a "sinistro".

According to Barbara Kaye <barbara_kaye@twcable.com>, the Greek
word for Left is aristera, which is the root of aristocrat.

Please respond to the FAQ maintainer a similar analysis
of the same words in your favorite language (pro or con) for
inclusion in this section.

Second, we are able to trace this link back to the Middle Ages and
the Renaissance. In the great religious art of the period, it was
common for the "good" guys to be portrayed as being right-handed while
satanic characters to be portrayed left-handed as sort of an
antithesis to the good. It is interesting to note that Leonardo
a Vinci painted "good" images like Jesus and Mary to appear left
handed, but Da Vinci is a fabled Lefthander.

There are examples of people appearing to
be left-handed in earlier art, but these are not considered to be
symbolic of anything. Later on, handedness was considered an important
test to determine if a person was a witch or war-lock theoretically
because of the link to Satanism.

You would think that in the twenty-first century, this sort of thinking
would be non-existent, but even today some people have a hard time
with left-handers.


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