It has never been a compliment to refer to someone or something as “sinister.” Such a description has distinctly negative connotations, indicating a great danger or evil that is to be hated and feared. It also refers to anything pertaining to the left, especially people who are left-handed, as the word “sinister” originates from the Latin word for “left.”
Today, this association between left-handedness and evil seems both ludicrous and baffling. How could such a seemingly innocuous group of people be so misrepresented by our very language?
As it turns out, discrimination against left-handed people throughout history has been the norm, not the exception. Folklore and superstition from many different cultures and time periods abound in regards to the left side, none of it very positive. Various expressions and figures of speech associate the left with clumsiness (having “two left feet”), lack of social grace (how gauche!), misfortune, and evil.
In many languages, including Latin, French, German, Chinese and Sanskrit, the word for left is also used to convey wickedness or impropriety. In Christianity, God’s left hand is the one that passes judgment on sinners. Black magic and Satanism are also associated with the left side, going so far as to be called “the left path.” Giving and receiving items with one’s left hand is considered rude in both Malaysia and Ghana.
The left hand has also been seen as inherently unclean, both literally and figuratively. In some cultures and religions, the left hand was used exclusively to tend to bathroom-related activities, while the right hand was used in more social interactions. As such, doing anything else with one’s left hand, such as eating or shaking hands, was considered taboo.
As you can see, the left hand has a lot of negative stigma attached to it. Why is its terrible reputation so prevalent around the world and throughout history? Well, the vast majority of people are right-handed, leaving the lefties at a measly 10 per cent of the human population. As a distinct minority, the left-handed were (and still are, to some extent) seen as aberrations, flawed beings to be looked down upon, or if one feels generous enough, cured of their unfortunate affliction.
In the past, writing with one’s left hand instead of their right was seen as unacceptable (or even impossible, in the case of Chinese), and left-handed children were strongly encouraged or forced to write with their right instead, or face the consequences.
As the world evolved, it is only natural that its societal and technological progress was tailor-made to suit the right-handed majority, leaving left-handers in the dust. Many seemingly simple, everyday tasks can become difficult when attempted with the left hand, as all objects were originally configured for use by the right hand only.
As all lefties know, using scissors is both uncomfortable and incredibly frustrating unless one has a pair of scissors intended specifically for left-handed use. A variety of sports also require special equipment for the left-handed, such as baseball gloves and golf clubs. Even the western writing order (from left to right) impedes left-handed people, as their hand will drag across the page while writing, smudging both the words and the sides of their hands.
Luckily for lefties, the reputation of the much-maligned left hand has been greatly improved in the past few decades. Today, it is not uncommon to find several students happily writing their assignments with their left hand, without anyone batting an eyelash (save perhaps for the fact that the students are happy to be writing assignments). The left-handed are increasingly seen as a smart and talented bunch, their unusual trait seen as a gift instead of a curse. Left-handed pitchers, bowlers and boxers are all at an advantage compared to their right-handed opponents, and many successful contemporary athletes, musicians and politicians (including U.S. President Barack Obama) are left-handed. So if you happen to be left-handed as well, take strength. One day you, too, may be equally successful, carving a place for yourself among the right-handed masses.
» Rebecca Xie is a Grade 11 student at Neelin High School.