Sinister, (evil or menacing), comes from the Latin word sinestra, meaning left. It was therefore a short step for people to believe left-handedness was devilish.Today, there are many derogatory terms to describe left-handedness, from southpaw (often in sport) to goofy in the US and cack-handed in Britain.
To describe someone as ‘out-in-left-field’ (from the world of baseball) is to mean they come out with something unrelated to what is happening around them; a bit crazy. The implication of clumsiness can be hurtful, although people who use their left hand as the stronger one do live in a world filled with right-handed machines, gadgets and handles.
In her article, Handedness Influences Thinking, Christine Blackman of Stanford University News reports on a study by Daniel Casasnto, a Stanford psychology scholar, (August 2009, accessed April 2010), that righties tend to judge favourably objects presented to them from the right; while lefties view the opposite. The left-hand side of the brain controls the right side of the body, and vice versa. It may be that while more left-handers are likely to suffer alcoholism, dyslexia, mental illness, Crohn’s Disease while dying young and being involved in more accidents, they are also likely to be more creative, individual, artistic and good at sports and leadership.
Estimates suggest between 10% and 15% of the population has a preference for left over the right hand for everyday manual activities, including writing. In many families it seems to be genetic. In July 2007, the BBC reported that a gene (LRRTM1) for increasing the odds for left-handedness had been found by an Oxford University team. They found studying emotions, speech and language an increased left-hand risk of schizophrenia, a condition often linked to unusual brain function balances.
Left-Handers in the Past
Sinistral writers have often been oppressed, or at least subject to restriction. It is still regarded by some as an aberration: a left-handed shake is disrespectful, despite the international Scouting movement preferring it for a greeting, perhaps because scouting founder Lord Baden-Powell was ambidextrous. In India and Indonesia it’s considered impolite to eat with the left hand. To write Chinese characters with the left is difficult.
In Biblical times, it was a symbol of power or custody as well as a description of misfortune. Ehud (Judges 3: 15-21), was a left-handed man sent by God to kill Eglon the Moabite, his sword strapped to his right thigh under his cloak. The guards didn’t realise he was armed. Also in Judges, (20:16), seven hundred left-handed men from the tribe of Benjamin were chosen to fight as they could ‘sling a stone at a hair, and not miss’.
A century ago, in an attempt to fight social stigma and devilish possession, children were slapped or had their left arms taped behind them, to make them right-handed. Over the years, people have found they can use their non-natural hand after injury or illness, (as composer Benjamin Britten did for a time), so there is an argument that environment can play as much a part in the cause as genetics.
Famous Left-Handed People
Obama is not the only left-handed US President. He is the latest in a line going back from Bill Clinton, George H W Bush, Reagan, Ford, Truman and Hoover to Garfield, the 20th President. Benjamin Franklin was one, along with Senator John McCain, Col Oliver North, Henry Ford and Nelson Rockefeller.
Others include Julius Caesar and Holy Roman Emperor Charlemagne. More recent sinistrals include Britain’s Queen Victoria, Kings George II and George V1, Prince Charles and Prince William; Fidel Castro, Israeli Prime Ministers Netanyahu and Olmert, Dr Albert Schweitzer, and astronaut Buzz Aldrin.
In sports, boxing and fencing are said to favour the left-handers, and famous sports people include Babe Ruth and John McEnroe. Criminals John Dillinger, John Wesley Hardin, Albert Henry DeSalvo (the Boston Strangler) and, it is believed, London’s Jack the Ripper; Jim Henson, Jay Leno, comedians Lenny Bruce and George Burns, Uri Geller, Matt Groening (and his fictional Bart Simpson) were or are left-handed.
Novelists HG Wells, Lewis Carroll, James Baldwin and Peter Benchley have led with the left. as have Glen Campbell, Kurt Cobain, Don and Phil Everly, Jimi Hendrix, Isaac Hayes, Beatle Paul McCartney, George Michael, Cole Porter and Paul Simon. Artists Durer, Escher, Holbein, Michelangelo, Raphael and possibly Leonardo da Vinci have painted with their lefts.
Actors include Dan Aykroyd, Robert DeNiro, Keith Carradine, Charlie Chaplin. Tom Cruise, Richard Dreyfuss, Greta Garbo, Cary Grant, Rex Harrison, Goldie Hawn, Rock Hudson, Angelina Jolie, Nicole Kidman, Steve McQueen, Marcel Marceau, Harpo Marx, Sarah Jessica Parker, Anthony Perkins, Robert Redford, Julia Roberts, Jerry Seinfeld, Peter Ustinov, Bruce Willis and Oprah Winfrey
There are many companies making and selling left-hand products: doors, keyboards, desks, notebooks, openers, screwdrivers, musical instruments. There are clubs, web pages and support groups dedicated to redressing the balance in an overwhelmingly right-handed world. There is even a special day, 13th August every year, designated as International Left-Handers’ Day. Nowadays, the hand a person uses most, is just one of the many diversities of the human race, celebrated, not condemned.
First published on Suite 101, 17 April 2010.
Photo: Nicole Kidman Waves Left-Handed – mikegoat