This week in history: Lefties of the world, unite!

August 13 is designated annual International Left-Handers Day, first observed on this day in the year 1976. It is meant to promote awareness of the inconveniences faced by left-handed people in a predominantly right-handed world. It celebrates the uniqueness and differences of a cohort, perhaps not yet an “identity” group, estimated from seven to ten percent of the world’s population distributed throughout all nations and racial groups. Left-handedness tends to run in families, and occurs more among males than females.

Hundreds of millions of left-handed people in today’s society have to adapt to use right-handed tools and objects.

Everyone knows some left-handed people. Most of them seem to get along fairly well without raising the issue of  “left-handed oppression.” Yet there is also a truly serious side to the day as well, particularly as it applies to the special needs of left-handed children. Also, left-handed people may be more likely to develop schizophrenia.

Left-Handers Day was made to celebrate sinistrality. Sinistrality? Let’s look at that word. In many languages the term for “left-handed” acquired a secondary but powerful meaning. The Greek word skaios also means “ill-omened, awkward.” The Italian mancino means “crooked, maimed.” In Dutch linkshandig means to have two left hands, i.e., clumsy. The French word gauche has entered the English language to mean “clumsy, awkward or inappropriate.”

How about English? The word “sinister” derives from the Latin word for left, sinestra, and connotes nothing positive—crafty, sneaky, ill-intentioned. Contrast that with the positive associations to right—dexter in Latin—from which we get “dextrous” and ”dexterity.” As opposed to the French gauche, we favor those who are adroit, which we also use in English. In French it means “to the right.”

Being left-handed has historically been associated with evil, witchcraft, and filth. To offer your “cacky-hand”—the crude term used in the British Isles—for a handshake is still considered in many cultures a sign of disrespect as the left hand was designated the “wiper” hand, which was also never used for eating. Images often depict a left-handed Satan. Evil spirits lurk over the left shoulder, which is why superstitious folk throw spilled salt over the left shoulder to ward them off.

The connection to evil derives from Western religion, although that it turn no doubt has earlier origins in right-favoring pagan cultures. Christianity is strongly based towards the right hand: It is that hand that gives blessings and makes the sign of the cross. By one count, the Bible contains over 100 favorable references to the right hand and 25 negative references to the left. In Psalm 118: 15-16, as well as in many other places, “the right hand of the Lord is exalted.” In the New Testament parable of the sheep and goats, the sheep are set on Christ’s right hand and the goats on the left. Those on the right inherit the kingdom of God while those on the left suffer everlasting fire.

One can easily understand how whole societies that believed in such pronouncements as the “word of God” would find it anathema to have a left-handed child. In schools teachers would resort to harsh measures to turn lefties into righties by tying the left hand behind their backs, forcing them to learn to write right. Conditions such as stuttering and dyslexia occur more often in left-handers, particularly if they were forced to change their writing hand as a child, like King of England George VI, father of the current Queen Elizabeth. His stuttering became the subject of the well-known movie The King’s Speech, when he had to deliver a wartime radio address to the nation.

Even without overt attempts to change them, left-handers soon become accustomed to finding common household and classroom items geared toward right-handedness. Desk-chairs in lecture halls and classrooms are almost always designed for right-handed writers. If lefties are “awkward,” think of the contortions required to successfully take notes or draw on a desk that was simply not built for your needs. Children find even an ordinary pair of scissors uncomfortable to grasp if it’s molded to a right-hand configuration. If children are directed to write in a coiled notebook, the coil will be painful for the left hand to rest upon, and the outer edge of the left hand will often become ink-stained, and the writing smudged, as the hand moves across the writing. Were there perhaps more left-handed scribes in the Middle East when Hebrew and Arabic writing were invented?

There is a market for left-handed products, but with only as much as 10 percent of the population being left-handed, many items are more expensive than their right-handed counterparts. Objects like scissors, serrated or beveled knives, and school desks can be marked up as much as 75 percent, while golf clubs see as much as a 200 percent increase depending on brand. People either have to adapt musical instruments such as violins and guitars to play them, or adapt themselves to use them as they are. One example of an item that one would never think to associate with handedness is the design of men’s briefs, which commonly presume a right-hand reach.

In countries that drive on the right, operating a standard (non-automatic) vehicle will give the left-handed person a critical engagement with the gearshift on the right. When right-handed people operate a vehicle in countries that drive on the left, they often find it a challenge getting used to using their left hand to switch gears. Left-handers are often considered generally more versatile or “ambidextrous”—literally, both sides right-handed!—because they have more of such challenges in life and have to adopt more range of movement on their right than right-handers have to learn with their left.

Now, where does the political term “left” or “left wing” derive from? Is it related to this discussion? Yes it is. The “left wing” dates from the 1790s when in the French revolutionary parliament, socialist representatives sat to the presiding officer’s left. “Leftists” were considered contrary to the established norm, hostile to the interests of traditional elites.

In case any on the political right should care to make an issue of the fact that both Bill Clinton and Barack Obama were Satanic “lefties,” they’ll have to contend with the larger fact that five out of the last eight presidents have been left-handed, including Gerald Ford, Ronald Reagan, and George H. W. Bush.

Theories about left-handedness abound. Stone Age implements seem equally divided between left and right, and cave drawings have indicated a preference for the left hand. When tools became more sophisticated, a clear right-hand preference emerged.

One theory says that as the heart is on the left-hand side, a shield would have to be in the left hand to defend it and any weapon therefore had to be held in the right, which became the dominant hand. That implies that handedness is an acquired, not a genetic trait, and in any case, few people walked around with shields and weapons all the time. Recent theories have included one that right-handedness is the norm and left-handedness is a “deficiency” resulting from a traumatic birth. Left-handers have fared badly over the years, and many old superstitions still survive today, some overlaid with “scientific” explanations.

Some left-handers like to point to lefties worthy of emulation, such as Leonardo da Vinci, Albert Einstein, Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, and Oprah Winfrey. Tennis fans are familiar with left-handed players such as Martina Navratilova, Rafael Nadal, John McEnroe, and Rod Laver. In 2013, 31 percent of Major League Baseball pitchers were left-handed. Lefties excel also in swimming and fencing, and some researchers have found that left-handers adjust more readily to seeing underwater.

On International Left-Handers Day, events have included left-vs.-right sports matches, a left-handed tea party, pubs using left-handed corkscrews where patrons drink and play pub games with the left hand only, and sponsored “Lefty Zones” where left-handers’ creativity, adaptability and sporting prowess are celebrated. Right-handers are encouraged to try out left-handed objects to see just how awkward it can feel using the wrong equipment, and to use their left hand for common daily activities just to see how not ambidextrous they are!

These events have contributed more than anything else to the general awareness of the difficulties and frustrations left-handers experience in everyday life, and have successfully led to improved product design and greater consideration of leftie needs by the right-handed majority. There is still a long way to go before “right-handed chauvinism” becomes universally understood.

If you‘d like to hear the “Left-Handers Lament” by Ian Radburn listen only here. You can hear the song and follow his lyrics here.

For more information, see the Left Handers Day website.


Special to People’s World
Special to People’s World

People’s World is a voice for progressive change and socialism in the United States. It provides news and analysis of, by, and for the labor and democratic movements to our readers across the country and around the world. People’s World traces its lineage to the Daily Worker newspaper, founded by communists, socialists, union members, and other activists in Chicago in 1924.