While examining the definition/etymology of the adjective sinister, I noticed its senses of EVIL, ILL-FORTUNE, and general inauspiciousness, as well as explicit references to the noun/adjective LEFT.

A subsequent examination of the definition of the adjective LEFT however, while uniformly negative and pejorative, revealed nothing more sinister or evil than references to the left-hand’s evaluation as the weaker and, I assume, less valuable side of the body, and to liberal, socialist, or radical political ideologies, senses which were established relatively late, being first attested in English 1837. As LEFT is obviously being contrasted with its opposite, I examined the definitions of RIGHT (and, dexter), which associations (no surprise here) are as uniformly positive as LEFT are negative.

The impact exerted upon the English language of this "right-good vs left-bad" trope must be vast. What are some examples of this trope embedded in everyday English - phrases, idioms, aphorisms?

Example: Philippe Petit's conception and execution of his Trade Center Towers performance is arguably the greatest wire walk in history - all of it but the walk itself was accomplished undercover and covertly because no one in their right mind would have knowingly allowed Petit to conduct such a suicidal mission ...

closed as off-topic by Hellion, tchrist, FumbleFingers, Avon, Chenmunka Aug 2 '15 at 19:14

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    The political sense of left and right is historical accident: it referred originally to the physical locations where the factions clustered in the French National Assembly of 1789 and thereafter. Leftists regard right-wingers with loathing, and vice versa. – StoneyB Jul 28 '15 at 18:54
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    It’s quite common in Indo-European languages. Irish deas means both ‘good/nice’ and ‘right (side)’, while clé means both ‘sinister, evil, wrong’ and ‘left’. The Scandiwegian højre/høyre/högra/hægri ‘right’ is etymologically the comparative of Old Norse hœgr ‘convenient, appropriate’, i.e., ‘the better one’ (though its opposite, venstre/vänster/vinstri ‘left’ etymologically means ‘the friendlier one’, which is also positive—likely euphemistic, though). French droit means ‘correct’ as well as ‘right’, and its opposite gauche ‘left’ also means the same as in English. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Jul 28 '15 at 19:07
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    @JakeRegier That's a good read for how and of what right/left took their meanings, but not why (other than to hint at religious reasoning). "In Sanskrit, the word "वाम" (waama) stands for both "left" and "wicked."Bias against left-handed people, Wiki – Mazura Jul 28 '15 at 19:27
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    I'm voting to close this question as off-topic because it is about a global, cross-cultural, multi-lingual historic trend, not about English per se. – Hellion Jul 29 '15 at 1:15

This dichotomy is surprisingly pervasive in language. It shows up not just in English, but in Sanskrit, most Slavic languages, French, German, Dutch, Irish, Finnish, Swedish, Hungarian, Turkish, Chinese, Korean, and Hebrew.

There are some great examples located in the Disparaging associations in language section on Wikipedia.

Warning: this is just my speculation...

Considering roughly 10% of the population is left-handed, the explanation of this prejudice may be as "simple" as longstanding subjugation of a minority group. While that may play a part in the matter, the even simpler fact of life for many people living in developing nations is the designation of one hand for wiping, so that the other may stay unpolluted and be used for eating. This mores dates back to primordial civilizations as well, and may be a reason for such a ubiquitous slant on right and left.

  • Thank you for your response (+1), I suspect that it's just as likely that the esteem accorded all things RIGHT determined the utilization for employing the LEFT-hand for such a base activity, than the other way around. – user98990 Jul 28 '15 at 19:51
  • +1 for the wiping thing. People had to do that with one hand or the other, and the stronger one was often occupied. Also you would eventually have to shake hands with someone and hope they were raised to wipe with their left. Oh, and I'm a lefty. – IchabodE Jul 28 '15 at 22:04
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    @LittleEva If it were the case that there is no genetic difference (right is not dominant, left not recessive, and therefore right is no more common, stronger, more likely to be used for esteemed activities, etc.), then I would be inclined to agree with you. If there is a gene that controls handedness (or more likely, a conflation of genes), then things would get pretty darn complicated. This conversation strayed from English quite a bit, but is very interesting to chew on. – user12305 Jul 28 '15 at 23:27


Social Chemosignaling

It has been discovered as a part of a research in the Weizmann Institute, that human handshakes serve as a mean of transferring social chemical signals between the shakers. It appears that there is a tendency to bring the shaken hands to the vicinity of the nose and perform an olfactory sampling of it. This may serve an evolutionary need to learn about the person whose hand was shaken, replacing a more overt and less socially acceptable sniffing behavior, as common in other animals.

We humans, have been shaking each others hands for a very long time and, unlike other mammals that are more flexible, have to clean ourselves with our hands. I surmise the simple idea of 'the wrong hand' for a job, in a society where dexterity favors one side with an almost complete bias, to predate language in all of its forms.

In Sanskrit, the word "वाम" (waama) stands for both "left" and "wicked." –Bias against left-handed people, Wiki

In Chinese culture, the adjective "left" sometimes means "improper" or "out of accord". For instance, the phrase "left path" stands for unorthodox or immoral means.

IMO, the etymology lies in cultural practices that arose before recorded history.

Re: other ways the left/right thing has affected our language and culture -probably more than I'm willing to speculate, considering the trope can be found in almost all religions and languages.

  • Thanks for the time and effort Mazura, that Social Chemosignaling research is kind of shocking, while at the same time perfectly reasonable. – user98990 Jul 28 '15 at 21:06

I think the dichotomy depends on their etymology. It appears that Left derives its negative meaning from heraldry:


  • Meaning "evil" is from late 15c. Used in heraldry from 1560s to indicate "left, to the left." Bend (not "bar") sinister in heraldry indicates illegitimacy and preserves the literal sense of "on or from the left side" (though in heraldry this is from the view of the bearer of the shield, not the observer of it).

while dexterity:

  • 1520s, from Middle French dexterité (16c.),from Latin dexteritatem (nominative dexteritas) "readiness, skillfulness, prosperity," from dexter "skillful," also "right (hand)" (source of Old French destre, Spanish diestro, etc.) The Latin form is with the comparative suffix -ter, thus meaning etymologically "the better direction." Middle English dester meant "right hand," and in heraldry dexter means "on the right side."