The right hand of God
December 6, 2012
To the sharp-eyed reader who noticed last week’s column was a tad left-leaning, I’d just like to say no, I’m not a Commie, yes, I am a liberal, and finally, you are simply incorrect, my parents were indeed, married.
Scathing mail and comments are an oblique measure of success to a freelance writer.
But they raised an important question in my mind: How’d we ever come to describe our political parties as Left and Right?
At first I thought it would be based upon an insult inherent in the word “left” with its sinister connotations going all the way back to the Bible, which contains more than 100 positive remarks about the right hand and over 25 negative comments about the left. Incidentally, the word sinister in Latin means on the left but in English means threatening evil and portending trouble.
In Old English, spoken a thousand years ago, the word for left also means weak or worthless. The Koran, discussing Judgment Day in Chapter 29, verses 18-33, says those carrying their Book of Deeds in the right hand go to heaven, while those carrying it on the left go straight to hell. And speaking of hell, where is that Devil, anyway? Why, he’s just over your left shoulder, toss some salt in his eyes.
In Swahili, the word for left-handed also means weak, in Serbo-Croatian, it’s incompetent, and in Russian, it shares meaning with clumsy. In Indonesian, the word for left-handed also means impolite. In Bulgarian, it means something that’s not working properly. There is nearly a universal linguistic bias against the left and left-handedness. I say nearly because Inca emperors were called, “the great left-handed ones.”
The word adroit comes from Latin ad directus, which translates as on the right. Today it means skillful under pressing conditions. Maladroit, itself an awkward term, means not only on the left, but also clumsy and inept. Gauche is French for left-handed and in English means awkward and socially graceless.
The word right, on the other hand, can mean a claim or entitlement as expressed in the French phrase droit de seigneur for example. This supposedly refers to the right of a feudal lord to have sexual relations with a vassal’s bride on her wedding night. Hey! It’s history. If you’re offended, cover your ears.
Forensics indicate that Jack the Ripper was left handed, as was Jeffrey Dahmer and Ted Bundy, the Boston Strangler, Robert Hansen, and the Zodiac killer. That’s really no surprise, just sitting next to a lefty at dinner can be murder.
Come on! That last part is hyperbole; an extravagant exaggeration not intended to be serious. Besides, it’s from none of these derogatory sources that we find the directional names that label our political parties.
It’s simply that in French Parliament, the conservatives sat on the Speaker’s left (the right side of the parliamentary hall) and the liberals on his right. We borrowed much of our law-making process from the French and hence, today our politicians are dramatically divided between the Right and the Left.
If you are left-handed, you’ll want to start stocking up on bunting for the August 13 celebration of Left Hander’s day. It will fall on Friday in the year 2021.
That’ll be a sinister day.