Isn’t it time left-handed people had a Bill of Rights – or should we say, Bill of Lefts?
Until the 20th century was well advanced, Lefties had to behave as Righties if they wanted to get on in life, in spite of having a large contingent of famous people on their side, including such geniuses as Leonardo da Vinci and Albert Einstein.
But having famous people on your side was no good to you when it came to using scissors, corkscrews, wrenches, phone booths, power saws, can openers, vegetable peelers, slot machines, violins, guitars, fishing reels, bowling balls, pencil sharpeners, saxophones and banjos – all made for right-handed people.
It’s only in the last couple of decades that Lefties have been able to shop for left-handed goods at ‘left-handed shops.’ These stock can openers, ladles, secateurs, and of course, scissors for people whose bent is left. (Generously, you can even find a pair of ambidextrous nail scissors.)
But the dexterity of left-handers, or rather, their sinistrality, is still hampered more by the negative connotations of words that relate to what is a mere accident of birth. About ten percent of the population are left-handed – maybe this is where the gay community got their figure of ten percent, since a disproportionately large number of gays are left-handed.
Lefties have had to face what can only be described as the most longstanding of negative presses. Very early on in history the Greeks regarded left-handedness as being as valuable as right. And the Romans thought that an augury favouring the left would do them the world of good – until augurers themselves fell out of favour. When they became politically correct again a curious thing had happened: the right had become the ‘right’ side, and left was left out, pretty much for good.
Now when the Romans put their best-foot forward it was always the right – they wouldn’t dare step over a threshold with the left foot first. They always shook hands with the right – partly to prove that they didn’t have a weapon in it. (The advantage for Lefties was that they could still conceal their weapon if necessary). They made a right-handed salute, which 2000 years later became the sign of the Fascist state.
It hasn’t helped that in some cultures the left-hand was always used for the more unpleasant tasks relating to the body. People in some cultures only ever touched food with the right because the left was used for wiping the rear end (and that’s still the case in much of the Arabic world).
The innocent-sounding word, cack-handed, which relates to anyone who fumbles, (and by connotation, therefore, to left-handers, who often fumble with right-handed appliances), actually has a much more unpleasant meaning. Cack is a word for excrement. The person who uses their ‘cack’ hand is definitely out of favour.
Whether it relates to the excremental aspect or not, many words for left-handers have a tinge of insult about them. Being left-handed means being subject to a continual slur on your character because language is widely anti-Leftist.
Left-handed in English at one time meant that you dealt in an under-handed way. It’s always had connotations with crippled, defective, awkward, clumsy, inapt. The French gauche runs along similar lines, and of course has been adopted into English to add another word to the battery of anti-left-hand words.
Left-handed has also meant ambiguous, doubtful, questionable, and in medical language, spurious. It’s meant ill-omened, inauspicious, and sinister – even though sinister, a Latin word, originally meant nothing more sinister than ‘left hand.’
Roget (who, in spite of his French sounding name, was English, born in Soho) aligns left-handed with clumsy, awkward, gawkish, stuttering, stammering, tactless, indiscriminating, lubberly, unhandy, all thumbs, butter-fingered and thick-fingered.
And he reminds us that a left-handed compliment is one with a sting in its tail.
But the Brits are by no means alone in their approach, as I hinted above. The Australians added an insulting aspect of their own, calling a left-hander a molly-dooker. A molly is an effeminate man, and ‘dukes’ is the slang for fists or hands.
These are just the merest sample of anti-left words that exist in the world’s languages. It isn’t surprising then, with all this abuse being hurled at them, that the Lefties need a Bill of their own. Here are a few suggestions of what might be included.
- Firstly, the use of discriminatory and defamatory language needs to be put away. If we can manage to get rid of words that offend women and people with disabilities, we should be able to remove words that imply left-handedness is somehow lesser, or evil.
- Secondly, all training establishments should be required to provide tools and equipment for the use of left-handed people, from scissors to band-saws.
- Thirdly, any person, whether parent, guardian, teacher, (or anyone else in authority) should be required to treat left-handed children with the same respect as right-handed ones. In the West, we’re moved some distance from the days when children had their left-hands tied behind their back or marked by a coloured ribbon so that they would only the ‘right’ hand, but there’s still some way to go.
- Fourthly, August the 13th of each year shall be celebrated as International Lefthanders’ Day. Why August the 13th? One explanation is that it was chosen in 1976 by the man who started Lefthanders’ International, mainly because it was his birthday, but also because there were no other major holidays around it.
Another explanation is that the 13th of August fell on a Friday in 1976 and it was a way of poking fun at the superstitions and oddball myths that have surrounded left-handedness for centuries. (Unfortunately the date is shared with Skinny Dipping Day, Blame Somebody Else Day, National Filet Mignon Day, and was also the day on which “Yes, we have no bananas’ reached Number One on the Hit Parade. )
Left-Hander’s International went out of business in 1998, but another group, Left Hand Publishing, has felt an obligation to keep the holiday alive. Annually, they send out thousands of press releases about the day, and have tried to get people to be serious about this holiday and the issues it represents.
Some Lefties in the US aren’t happy with their progress towards acceptance, and they’ve considered forming an equal Lefts movement. These revolutionaries would require left-handedness to be considered a disability, (with all the benefits that might accrue.)
Furthermore, they think manufacturers should provide left-handed models of every possible product, and that firms should be required to hire a percentage of left-handed people.
Whether this is a fanciful group or not, the point is that Lefties have had centuries of put-down, and it’s time as much effort was made to make them feel a normal part of the human race, as has been spent on other minorities in the last thirty years.
Copyright Mike Crowl 2006
Mike Crowl is the author of a number of articles on a variety of topics, and wrote a weekly column for five and a half years. He enjoys writing about lefthandedness, although he himself is mostly righthanded. His blog looks at all manner of subjects, from music and the arts to the amazing variety of sites on the Web. http://mikecrowlsscribblepad.blogspot.com/
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