Monday, December 8, 2008


Gus said...

I'd forgotten that back then, they believed being left-handed was of the devil (and they took the devil very, very seriously). The word "sinister" comes from the Latin word "sinistra," meaning "left." (That's "left" as in "opposite of right," and not "departed" or "abandoned.") That's how highly they thought of it. Even as late as the 1960's, well-meaning, out-of-date grown-ups were forcing left-handed children to use their right hands.

I'm so glad we're all enlightened now.

One of my father's sisters, reflecting one day on the fact that much of their side of the family were southpaws, told me that I had no right to be right-handed. Is this reverse discrimination?

rick allen said...

I am curious...what are the medieval sources where lefthandedness is considered sinful?

Muthah+ said...

Rick, According to Wikipedia--

There are many colloquial terms used to refer to a left-handed person. Some are just slang or jargon words, while others may be offensive or demeaning, either in context or in origin. In more technical contexts, 'sinistral' may be used in place of 'left-handed' and 'sinistrality' in place of 'left-handedness'. Both of these technical terms derive from sinister, a Latin word meaning 'left'.[17]

In Hebrew, as well as in other ancient Semitic and Mesopotamian languages, the term "hand" was a symbol of power or custody.[18] The left hand symbolized the power to shame society, and was used as a metaphor for misfortune, natural evil, or punishment from the gods. This metaphor survived ancient culture and was integrated into mainstream Christianity by early Catholic theologians as Ambrose of Milan[19] to modern Protestant theologians such as Karl Barth[20] to attribute natural evil to God in explaining God's omnipotence over the universe.

Meanings evolved from use of these terms in the ancient languages. In many European languages, "right" is not only a synonym for correctness, but also stands for authority and justice: German and Dutch recht, French droit, Spanish derecho, Portuguese direito; in most Slavic languages the root prav is used in words carrying meanings of correctness or justice. Being right-handed has also historically been thought of as being skillful: the Latin word for right-handed is dexter, as in dexterity; indeed, the Spanish term diestro and the Italian's destro, mean both "right-handed" and "skilful". In Irish, "deas" means "right side" and "nice". "Ciotóg" is the left hand and is related to "ciotach" meaning "awkward"[21]; in French, "gauche" means "left" and is also a synonym of "maladroit", meaning "clumsy". Same for the Italian "maldestro" and the Dutch word "links".

Meanwhile, the English word sinister comes from the Latin word sinister, which originally meant "left" but took on meanings of "evil" or "unlucky" by the Classical Latin era. Alternatively, sinister comes from the Latin word sinus meaning "pocket": a traditional Roman toga had only one pocket, located on the left side for the convenience of a right-handed wearer.[citation needed] The contemporary Italian word sinistra has both meanings of sinister and left. The Spanish siniestra has both, too, although the 'left' meaning is less common and is usually expressed by izquierda,[22] a Basque word that made its way into Portuguese too. In Portuguese, the most common word for left-handed person, canhoto, was once used to identify the devil, and canhestro, a related word, means "clumsy" (sinistro means only "sinister"). Furthermore, in English, the expression "To have two left feet" refers to clumsiness in the domains of football or dancing.

The left side is often associated with awkwardness and clumsiness. The Dutch expression "twee linkerhanden hebben", the German expression "zwei linke Hände haben", the Bulgarian expression "dve levi ratse" and the Czech expression "Mít obě ruce levé" ("to have two left hands") all mean being clumsy.

In ancient China, the left has been the "bad" side. The adjective "left" (Chinese character: 左, Mandarin: zuǒ) means "improper" or "out of accord". For instance, the phrase "left path" (左道, Mandarin: zuǒdao) stands for illegal or immoral means. The pictograph for "left," 左 depicts a left hand attending to work. In contrast, the pictograph for "right," 右 (Mandarin: yòu) depicts a right hand in relation to the mouth, suggesting the act of eating. Contrast this pattern with the Muslim example below.

In Welsh, the word chwith means left, but can also mean strange, awkward, or wrong. The phrase o'r chwith refers to an object being inside-out.[23]

Hope this helps

rick allen said...

Interesting stuff, but it doesn't exactly support the idea that literal lefthandedness was particularly considered "evil" in the middle ages. Most of the Wikipedia article material is linguistic, and goes back to antiquity.

The polarity of left and right naturally lends itself to supplying an analogy to other polarities. But did anyone actually ever teach it was a sin? I have certainly always taken the Creed's "sitting at the right hand of God" as a figure of speech, not a condemnation of lefthandedness.

I truly don't know. But I am mildly curious whether this is based on fact, or one of those things that "everyone knows," but which is in fact false (like the notion that the world was thought flat in the middle ages).

Muthah+ said...

Rick, I think that this is a matter of what was "known" by scholars and what was "popular" belief. It is often the "popular" belief that makes life difficult. And in the hands of those who wish to have Power-Over another, left-handedness was just one more piece of leverage.

That is certainly the situation with LGBT folks presently.