How Ancient Superstition Perpetuated the “Sinister” Reputation of the Left Hand

Tuesday, March 213 min read

“All Greek, and this all Troy; my mother’s blood, runs on the dexter cheek, and this sinister bounds in my father’s.” While perhaps an unfamiliar usage of “dexter” and “sinister” to modern readers, this line from Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida starts to make sense once we consider that a few centuries ago, the aforementioned words were interchangeable with “right” and “left,” respectively.  The synonymous usages have dropped away, but in “sinister” and “dexterity,” there’s a connection to a centuries-old aversion to the left side and left handedness, and a preference for the right.

A Sign From Above

The fear of the left side can be traced back to ancient Greece, where the practice of augury (the interpretation of omens through birds) was used to determine if one had the approval of the gods. According to a specific ritual performed by the augur (while facing north), birds flying in from the left side were unfavorable — a bad omen. Conversely, birds that flew in from the right side were thought to be a favorable sign. (In addition to the direction of flight, the augurs ascribed meaning to the species, appearance, and cries of the birds. The Greek word for bird, ornis, also meant “omen.”)

While Greek augurs waited for these omens, they faced north, allowing the sun to rise on their right and set on their left. The side of the sunrise was a sign of good fortune, whereas the sunset was ominous. While the Greeks didn’t use the word “sinister,” the Latin word sinister and the Old French word sinistre were eventually ascribed to these “unlucky or unfavorable” omens from the west. This resulted in a double meaning for “sinister,” and the negative connotation of the left side became a lasting association. Today, “sinister” is used almost exclusively to describe something evil or harmful, rather than simply unfavorable.

The Romans also used augurs, but in direct contrast with the ancient Greeks, they faced south instead of north, making the left the more favorable side for their omens and observations. This generated an additional use for the word “sinister” in Latin — “favorable, auspicious, fortunate, or lucky.” Unfortunately for left-handers, this alternative sense of the word didn’t stick around.

Everything’s Right

The modern word “dexterity” means “skill in performing tasks,” but its Latin root, dexter, has a double meaning: “skillful” and “right (hand).” Echoing the sentiment, ancient Greeks raised their right hands while swearing an oath, favoring it as the superior hand.

Similarly, the term for being able to use both hands dominantly, “ambidextrous,” leans toward the right hand. The medieval Latin term ambidexter meant “right-handed on both sides.” In contrast, the Latin word for being “left-handed on both sides” — ambilevous — also means “clumsy.” In reality, of course, being left-handed has nothing to do with clumsiness, and being right-handed does not indicate superiority, but the association was strong centuries ago.

Superstition in the Modern World

To be left-handed is rare — only 10% of the population claims this trait — and the difference has not always been embraced. Parents and teachers around the world have retrained left-handed children to write with their right hand. In some cultures and religions, the left hand is still seen as “different and bad,” and therefore is not suitable for some tasks.

Idioms deriding left-sidedness abound. Having “two left feet” describes a bad dancer, and a “left-handed compliment” is slyly unflattering to the recipient. Furthering the argument, to ride a snowboard or skateboard “goofy-footed” is to use the left foot as the steering foot. This seemingly innocent description, by literal definition, is “foolish or harmlessly eccentric.” Riding any board with the right foot dominant is referred to as “regular,” another subtle blow. (But in a win for lefty riders everywhere, famed skateboarder Tony Hawk rides goofy.)

As further proof that the trait isn’t so sinister, the left-handers club has some famous members on its roster. Among the ranks are Oprah Winfrey, Babe Ruth, Leonardo da Vinci, Aristotle, Albert Einstein, and Jimi Hendrix (who was ambidextrous, but favored the left hand for the guitar).

For all the criticism faced by the left hand, the right hand receives an equal measure of praise. As seen in religion and the court of law, the right hand is metaphorically connected to both authority and divinity. The “right-hand man,” by definition, is indispensable, and at dinner parties, the guest on the right side of the host has a seat of honor, according to traditional etiquette. Look at the synonyms of “right” and find an abundance of positive words — “correct,” “just,” “sane,” and “healthy,” to name a few. While the ancient classifications of the right and left sides have no real place in the modern world, they have left a lasting mark on our language.

Featured image credit: Liudmila Chernetska/ iStock

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