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.

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