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shameless pleading

Right / Left

Exit stage whatever.

Dear Word Detective: Why is right “right” but left “sinister”? I just read your treatise on good/god and evil/devil, when I started to wonder why “right” (opposite of left) is “right” (opposite of wrong) but “left” from Latin has gotten such a bum rap. — Topi Linkala.

That’s an interesting question. The column you mention was a response to a newspaper clipping, sent along by a reader, which read “If you start dwelling on the fact that you only have to add a ‘d’ to evil to get devil, you soon notice that by taking an ‘o’ away from good, you end up with God.” I wasn’t certain what that was supposed to prove in the first place, but I went ahead and explained, at length, that “good,” “god,” “evil” and “devil” are all completely unrelated words. Readers interested in the details can find the column at www.word-detective.com/2010/09/10/good-god-evil-and-devil.

While it apparently seems to many people that there must be a connection between “good” and “god” and “evil” and “devil,” I’d be willing to bet that many people assume that the “right” of “right-hand turn” is probably a different word from the “right” of “right and wrong” or the “right” of “civil rights.” But there really only one “right” in that lineup. From your “right” to vote to “righting” a capsized boat, it’s all one word.

The root sense of “right” (from the Indo-European root “reg”) is “to move in a straight line” or, figuratively, “to rule or guide.” In Latin, the derivative “rectus” meant “straight” (and gave us such words as “rectify” and “rectitude”), and “rex,” drawn from the same source, meant “leader or king.”

As the ancestors of our modern noun “right” percolated through various European languages, the basic sense was “that which is proper, just and good,” which became the initial sense in English as well. This was the origin of our modern sense of “rights” (things we are entitled to do or have) as well as “right” meaning “correct” in both the moral sense and the logical sense (e.g., the “right” answer to a math problem). “Right” as an adjective was also used to mean simply “straight” (as in a “right road”), but that usage is now obsolete.

The use of “right” as the opposite of “left” came from the simple fact that most humans are “right-handed” and that was considered the “proper” or “correct” hand because it was generally the stronger and more dexterous (a word which comes from the Latin “dexter,” meaning both “skillful” and “right” as in “right-handed”). This use of “right” as a relative direction arose in English in the early 13th century. “Right” went on to develop dozens of meanings in all these senses (stronger hand, morally upright, individual rights, etc.) and was a smashing popular success.

“Left,” on the other hand (yuk yuk), has had a hard time from day one. The word “left” itself comes from Old English roots meaning “weak” or “foolish,” and it didn’t assume its place as the opposite of “right” until the 13th century. Interestingly, “left” replaced the Old English “winestra” as the common term for the side of the body opposite to “right.” Oddly enough, the old “winestra” also meant “friendlier,” and the name is thought to have been a euphemism employed to avoid antagonizing the evil spirits that were thought to dwell in the left side of the body. (Seriously. Have you ever taken a good look at your left hand?)

The Latin word for “left” was “sinister,” which may have come, as did the English “left,” from roots meaning “weaker.” But some authorities think the source of “sinister” was the Sanskrit “saniyan,” meaning “more useful” or “friendlier,” which would make “sinister” another pathetic attempt to butter up the evil left side. If so, the attempt to placate those evil spirits ran aground when “sinister” in Latin eventually took on the meanings of “unfavorable” and “dangerous,” which carried over into our modern English adjective “sinister.”

Incidentally, the use of “left” and “right” as political categories has nothing to do with any of this beyond a simple designation of position. It originated with the seating arrangements in French National Assembly in 1789, where the conservative nobility was seated to the presiding official’s right side and the radicals of the Third Estate to his left.

5 comments to Right / Left

  • [...] Right / Left « The Word Detective [...]

  • Elizabeth

    Very interesting post. I discovered your website just a few months back, and love that it exists. Someone who wonders about words and actually goes and finds their origins!

    To add a bit to the conversation, studies of the brain show the left half is the language center, and where most logical and detail-oriented thinking originates, while the right half is the creative, kooky side, which deals with the whole picture.

    Each half of the brain controls the opposite side of the body: left half = right side of body, right half = left side of body.

    I’ve read that since the left half is the only one which “speaks”, we may have come up with these words and meanings because the left side (which controls the right hand) of the brain is maligning the mute, and quite different, right (which controls the left hand). A silly idea, maybe, but a fun one.

  • Bruce Fisher

    That explains French route directions ‘tout droit’
    meaning straight on.

  • Ray

    Thank you for a very interesting site, and this very interesting post.
    Words are so interesting. English is such a combination.
    I am an English teacher in Bangkok Thailand, yet originally from New Zealand.
    Teaching in Asia adds another dimension to this Left/Right, as many Asian students have difficulty pronouncing the “R” and say “L”
    My name Ray is often pronounced Lay.
    so Right becomes Light. Light & Left :)

    Thank you Elizabeth for you interesting reply.

    thank you for your site & posts,

    http://www.bangkokenglishcourse.com

    Ray :)

  • Kevin

    [It appears that Greek script may be a problem on your site, so this is an amended repost. Please delete my previous post.]

    some authorities think the source of “sinister” was the Sanskrit “saniyan,” meaning “more useful” or “friendlier,” which would make “sinister” another pathetic attempt to butter up the evil left side.

    Is there something similar going on in Greek, where aristerá = “left” and áristos = “best”?

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