Right / Left

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.

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5 comments on this post.
  1. ANGRY BIRD FAQ | CHROMANGA.COM:

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

  2. 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.

  3. Bruce Fisher:

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

  4. 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 :)

  5. 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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