Jon de Vos: Sitting at the left hand of God
November 14, 2008
Some years back, I wrote a particularly annoying column about left-handed people. I didn’t mean to offend, but more to illustrate how curious the word, ‘left’ is. That’s ‘left’, as in, which side do you carry your sword?
Based upon feedback from the column, I was able to formulate a tentative theory: “Left-handed people are hypersensitive, crabby, and wouldn’t recognize hyperbole if they backed over it in their Buick.” Hyperbole is an extravagant exaggeration that is used for effect and not intended to be taken seriously. Just because forensics indicate that Jack the Ripper was left-handed, doesn’t give anyone the right to imply that all left-handed people are serial killers. Sure, Jeffrey Dahmer was left-handed, as was Ted Bundy, but that’s totally without any statistical implications. Of course, if you include the Boston Strangler, Robert Hansen, and the Zodiac killer … well, connect the dots. Ever sat next to a lefty at dinner? Murder, isn’t it?
It’s not just me. Old English was the language spoken in England a thousand years ago and a close ancestor to modern English. In Old English, “left” means “weak” or “worthless.” In almost every culture and almost every language, there is a relentless bias against left-handedness. In the Koran, Chapter 29, verses 18-33, describe a Judgement Day where those carrying their Book of Deeds in the right hand will go directly to heaven, while those carrying it on the left will plummet straight to a fiery hell.
Speaking of hell, where is that devil? Right over your left shoulder so you can throw salt in his eye when you spill it. The Bible contains more than a hundred positive notations about the right hand along with 25 negative connotations about the left. A notable exception was the Inca Civilization who called their emperors, “the Great Left-Handed ones.”
An English-Japanese dictionary gives the word for left as hidari and hidari maki, which means “counterclockwise” and “strange.” Hidari mae means “folding the kimono improperly,” as well as “going broke” or “losing everything.” Sasen, Japanese for “move to the left” also implies a demotion. In Swahili, the word for left-handed means “weak.” In Serbo-Croatian, it means “incompetent” and in Russian, it means “clumsy.”
In English, early meanings of the word “dexter” meant “favorable” and “auspicious.” A “dextrous” person is smart and skillful. A “sinister” person threatens evil and portends trouble. Don’t you just hate people who wave little quotation marks in the air with their fingers?
Where was I? Oh, yeah, “adroit” means skillful and adept under tough conditions. “Maladroit”, a clumsy word itself, means clumsy and inept. “Gauche”, in French, means “left-handed”. In English, it means socially clumsy.
“Right,” on the other hand, means a just or moral claim, as in “an inalienable right.” “Rectitude” shares linguistic origins with the word “right”, as does “erect”, the art of being upright, oops, there it is again. Even the Bible talks about those who sit at the “Right Hand of God.”
Perhaps you’re wondering about the Right Wing versus Left Leaning, Terrorist, Fist-Bumping Liberals. Are the “right” right and the left clumsy? In this instance, “right” and “left” have nothing to do correctness or rectitude. In French Parliament, Conservatives sat on the Speaker’s left and Liberals on his right.
Aug. 13 is National Left Hander’s Day. It falls on a Friday in 2010. How “sinister”.
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