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For example in the idioms "left and right", "left, right and centre", and in many contexts where both left and right are mentioned, it seems that the left usually comes before the right. Why is this so?

I guess the begged, or zero-th, question: is there a preference when ordering left and right? Some people use "right and left" as well.

I'm not sure how useful an Ngram search would be, due to both left and right having multiple meanings, e.g. "she turned to her right and left the house" or "he stood up, left and right then ...".

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Why do we read from A to Z (Alpha and Omega)? Yes, why do we read from left to right? Is it an english question? –  Val Oct 10 '13 at 9:16
    
because L comes before R :P –  Tobias Kienzler Oct 10 '13 at 9:39
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Its a historical accident. Once 'left and right' catches on, it becomes harder for 'right and left' to catch up because people hear the first one more, so it sticks to their brains, so a situation where both are used equally would be an unstable equilibrium. –  user1708 Oct 10 '13 at 11:30
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6 Answers

As one answer to the question behind "left" vs "right"
-- i.e, why do fixed phrases get frozen in one form, like tide-locked moons? --
there is one interesting and probably correct theory, advanced decades ago in a paper by Cooper and Ross entitled 'World Order', which is worth reading, if you're interested in the phenomenon.

It compares frozen meaningful doublets ("freezes"), like ladies and gentlemen or Scotch and soda,
-- but not the other way round) with meaningless doublets like hocus-pocus or dribs and drabs
-- but not the other way round) and finds that they follow the same phonological rules,
which are common in many languages.

In addition, there is a consistent set of semantic rules for which part of a freeze comes first.

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I think the paper is interesting and merits a lot of discussion but it is only an answer to the question in a circular logic sort of way. Yes "left and right" is frozen. The question is why is it frozen like that. Using some of the semantic rules is a guess at best. This is a very common phrase and I am sure there is a real reason left is before right. But the whole concept is interesting. –  RyeɃreḁd Oct 10 '13 at 4:47
    
I understand hocus-pocus to be a corruption of 'hoc est corpus' (in the Mass), so the order is not optional. –  TimLymington Oct 10 '13 at 15:07
    
For some. Don't forget not everybody is Catholic any more. –  John Lawler Oct 10 '13 at 17:13
    
@John: Er, religion doesn't change the derivation of the word any more than it changes the fact that this is the year 2013: neither can properly be called meaningless. –  TimLymington Oct 10 '13 at 22:47
    
It may have been a mispronunciation of hoc est enim corpus meum; and it may not, even at the time. But there's no reason to believe that that's the only source for everybody. It never happens that way. Nobody was keeping track of how the lower classes talked, after all. –  John Lawler Oct 11 '13 at 0:44
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My suspicion is that the order of words in fixed phrases is fixed by prosody--i.e., how easily it rolls off the tongue.

English seems to prefer saving syllables with diphthongs for the end:

up and down; left and right; in and out,

instead of

down and up; right and left; out and in.

The expression 'now and then' is an exception...but notice how it leads to confusion if it is reversed:

Example: Last year he fainted now and then; today he is healthy.

Compare: Last year he fainted then and now; today he is healthy.

Parsed quickly or spoken aloud, without punctuation, the second one would tend to be ambiguous between "Last year, he fainted at or around that time, and at present he is healthy" versus the intended meaning "Last year, he fainted from time to time, and at present he is healthy."

Is there a pattern for others? I don't know...but consider front and back, there and back, out and about, down and out, inside out (not out inside), high and dry, ifs ands or buts, here and there

Also, consider the strange prosody of "parcel and part" instead of the more rhythmic "part and parcel"

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I would compare "inside out" with "outside in" instead of "out inside" –  ratchet freak Oct 10 '13 at 7:55
    
An other example: "Hither and thither" (may not be used often right now, but you find it tons of times reading Tolkien!) –  Bakuriu Oct 10 '13 at 11:22
    
PS. This might also explain "Bob and I went." versus "I and Bob went." The usual explanation is 'politeness' but that doesn't explain why "You and she" and "she and you" are interchangeable, even though the person being addressed presumably should be shown more respect. –  Merk Oct 18 '13 at 8:17
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There are two theories (that I know of), the first of which I find more plausible.

A) Military marches

The point of the first consequence is that handedness is to a large degree biological. The ratio of right-handers among chimpanzees, our first cousins, is 66%. Ours is from 70% to 90%. Considering such a high ratio, as well as the significance of hunting and of tribal warfare as pillars of our civilization, one shouldn't be surprised that, from an early start, the weaker, clumsier hand was held in small esteem. So small, in fact, that the left hand was associated not only with weakness (left used to mean weak, and is related to lame, limp, worthless) but also with evil: before the 13th c. the word for left was "winestra, literally 'friendlier,' a euphemism used superstitiously to avoid invoking the unlucky forces connected with the left side (see sinister)." Sinister was Latin for left, on the left side. Just about all other languages that have the notion of left/right (there are more than a few that don't; in South America, Australia, China) are the same in that regard.

So, when the warring sides would face each other, they'd start their marching left leg first. This evil-imbued, devil-possessed limb would be called on to set the course of the battle, as well as prepare the terrain for the stronger limb. Damned they be, the heathens!

In English, as in numerous other languages, many military terms and notions easily penetrated into the civilian language.

B) Phonetics and phonology

"Left and right" is more easily pronounced than "right and left." The front-center-back position and the height of the tongue within the mouth cavity, as well as the shape of the lips, are important for the diphthong /aɪ/ and the monophthong /e/. The /a/ part of the diphthong, which is much longer than the /ɪ/ part and therefore dominant, has the tongue at the center position and of almost fully "open" height, both of which are the neutral, natural tongue positions; the lips too are shaped neutrally, neither spread nor rounded. On the other hand, /e/ has the tongue in the front position, of "half-open" to "half-close" height, as well as slightly spread lips, all of which requires more muscle movement. As we're forced to exert some effort in order to say anything, we find it easier to first exert more effort and then less, because the gravity and the articulator elasticity themselves will do a part of the job after we exert ourselves, so for the second word, right, we almost don't have to do anything. Even the consonant /r/ is just an approximant (the tongue doesn't go so far as to actually touch any other articulators), leaving us only with the chore of pronouncing the alveolar plosive /t/, but when /t/ is the last phoneme of the utterance and is preceded by a vowel, we commonly resort to good ole silent letters and don't even pronounce the t. On the other hand, for the /l/ in left, the tongue does have to make an effort to touch another articulator (the alveolar ridge); plus, despite being an approximant, it is of the lateral kind, which implies more muscle movement. The consonant /f/ is no hassle, but it precedes the /t/, so we can't play the silent letter game with left (sometimes my friends and I kid around and say /lef/, but only to ridicule something). In short, one has to exert effort for left whether it's the first or the last word.

So, logically, as the placement of left is irrelevant and of right is not, we opt to say right the last.

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I take this theory of starting with one word rather than another for ease of pronunciation with a pinch of salt. It may seem easier to say because we have ourselves programmed ourselves to say those words in that particular order. Repetition, and hearing that combination means our mouths tongues etc. have been conditioned. The combination "right or left" requires no exertion. Maybe it is the vowel sounds, /e/ and /ai/ which influence the order, and its pleasantness? –  Mari-Lou A Oct 13 '13 at 10:06
    
"Right OR left" is very much different from "right AND left." In the latter, owing to weak forms of function words such as and (/ən/), an important phonetic sequence is /tən'le/. It just so turns out that it's easier to pronounce /tən'ra/, which is born in "left and right." –  Talia Ford Oct 13 '13 at 11:22
    
I'm still not convinced, but that doesn't mean you're not right :) I wish I possessed the appropriate terminology to express for what I'm about to say but I don't so forgive me if I sound ignorant or illiterate. But I believe in connected speech the joining of the two words, "right" with "and" is very easy, it becomes "raiten" hence "raiten left" for me is natural and it flows effortlessly. But I'm not an expert and that's why I haven't written an answer! –  Mari-Lou A Oct 13 '13 at 11:38
    
They're both easy to pronounce, but "left and right" is even more so. The reason being (I'll focus on the consonant production only) that in "left and right" the tongue assumes the front position (it taps the alveoral ridge), then the front position again (taps it again), and finally its almost neutral position, achieved mostly by relaxing the tongue muscle (t, n, r). In "righT aNd Left" it can't rely on relaxing in order to achieve any of the three sounds; it's gotta do all the work. It's a small difference though, and that is one of the reasons I find the theory (A) more likely. –  Talia Ford Oct 13 '13 at 11:52
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to lend weight to theory A there's this link amphicars.com/acleft.htm which says and I quote:In days of old logic dictated that when people passed each other on the road they should be in the best possible position to use their sword to protect themselves. As most people are right handed they therefore keep to their left. This practice was formalised in a Papal Edict by Pope Benefice around 1300AD who told all his pilgrims to keep to the left. –  Mari-Lou A Oct 13 '13 at 12:07
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I agree that it has to do with how the phrase sounds, but I also think that sometimes it may have to do with alphabetical order (which is just my theory).

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Alphabetical order doesn't have anything to do with spoken language; but how the phrase sounds has everything to do with fixed phrase retention. –  John Lawler Oct 10 '13 at 3:36
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In poetry, it would be easier to use “left and right” because there are many more words that rhyme with “right” than with “left”. (This doesn't explain why the “freeze” occurs in prose, though.)

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Perhaps the origin is far more remote than suggested above.

"Sinister" is suggestive of evil since the Antiquity ; "sinistral" is another word for "left-handed". In French, "gaucher" means left-handed, and "gauche" means awkward, clumsy.

Is not "left" intrinsically considered as inferior to "right" ?

And you generally say "small or great", starting from the minor and ending by the major.

Am I ... right ?

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So why do we normally say "right or wrong"? And the saying, "all creatures great and small" that order is reversed according to your idea. Interesting... –  Mari-Lou A Oct 10 '13 at 9:00
    
Wrong and small are easier to pronounce than right and great. When these units are in the last position, their pronunciation is even more slackable, so the amount of muscle movement in toto is smaller than it'd be if they were in the 1st position. –  Talia Ford Oct 10 '13 at 9:39
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