- n. Designating the side of the body which is positioned to the east if one is facing north.
- n. Pertaining to the political right; conservative.
- n. Designating the side of the body which is positioned to the west if one is facing north.
- n. Pertaining to the political left; liberal.
“Left” and “right” are such common words that we don’t often realize just how significant they are; but like all simple words, they tend to be venerable, storied, and much more interesting than it may first appear.
I was inspired to do these words because of an e-mail forward joking about “left” and “right” politics by quoting Ecclesiastes:
A wise man’s heart is at his right hand; but a fool’s heart at his left.
Left as we know it comes from Middle English—spelled various as left, lift, and luft—adapted from the Kentish adaptation of the Old English lyft, which meant “weak” or “foolish”. Circa 1200, when it began showing up in Middle English, it retained that same sense, but appropriated the sense being the opposite of right about a century later. It’s not a surprising event: the left side of the body has, back into antiquity, held connotations of evil, weakness, or general negativity.
The Latin word for left was sinister, and at some point gained the aforementioned connotation due to its speakers’ superstitions about the left side of things. Douglas Harper suggests this was due to Greek influence, since Romans generally regarded the left side as favorable. The connotation was strong enough that Old French adopted the word as sinistre, meaning “contrary” or “unfavorable” as well as its spatial definition. Today we no longer use sinister in its neutral form, but only as an adjective for evil. Left, meanwhile, though it began with largely the same connotations, only retains its connotations in certain phrases like “left-handed compliment”. The stigma of the left is sometimes retained in the language of other cultures in much the same way.
Most Romantic languages still use some form of the Latin sinister with the exception of Spanish, which does have the word siniestra in the English manner of something evil, but uses izquierda as the spatial left; this latter is one of a few Basque words which have found their way into mainstream Spanish.
By contrast, the Latin for right, dexter, gave us the adjective dexterous, which is full of positive connotations: in other words, right-handed persons were skilled, and the poor southpaws1 were considered weak at best and evil at worst. The modern “right” comes from the Old English riht, which meant “fitting”, “proper”, or “straight”. On the Latinate side, we can trace word back to the PIE root *dek[s]-, meaning “on the right hand”. Once again, there’s been a split between the spatial and connotative senses: in modern Spanish, for instance, diestro means right-handed or dexterous, but derecha means right in the sense of a la derecha, or “to the right”. In English we retain dexterous in the sense of skillful, and also “direct” from the same root.
These connotations explain many of the uses of these words—especially “right”—part from their spatial sense. But there are other connotations, too, such as the ones mentioned at the beginning of this article. The origin of political “Left” and “Right” is no secret, and gets bandied about during election cycles or by the annoying guy at parties2. In fact, “Left” and “Right” are truncations of “Left-Wing” and “Right-Wing”, which refer to literal wings (as of a building) to the left and right of the president of Parliament during the French Revolution (circa 1789). The terms didn’t becoming commonplace in British or American political parlance for another century, however.