Dear Right-Handed People


Remember jacks? It’s one of those rare games that lasted a couple of generations. My mother played jacks as a girl, and so did I. I still would, if I could find anyone to play with me. And I’d play it the way I always have: left-handed.

Left-handedness has a long history of being vilified, including its being sufficient evidence to condemn a person of witchery. Even today, 150 years after the first theories emerged on brain lateralization, we use left-handed to describe actions that are clumsy, awkward, or suspect in some way. Sinister literally means “left-handed.” Gauche, the French word for left-handed, has been adopted into English to imply awkward or impolite behavior, synonymous with maladroit, literally, “bad at right.” No one wants to have two left feet, or to receive a left-handed compliment, whereas if you’re one of the rare folk who can do things with both hands you’re called ambidextrous, or “right on both sides.” The snowboard stance that puts more weight on the left foot is called goofy. The use of right to denote entitlement isn’t accidental, but etymologically connected. If you’ve ever driven in France, you’ve surely noticed that the road sign Tout droit, or “all right,” means to go straight.

We’ve tried to redress these wrongs. Slowly, in the 20th century, as research showed the potentially crippling effects of forcing left-handed children to work from the right, we eased up on those sometimes abusive methods. In my own case, just after I had learned to write, my parents became convinced that “switching” me could cause one of an array of problems, including dyslexia and stuttering. So they stopped … and left me in the middle. I write with my right hand, but when I broke that arm, it took little time to come up with a legible cursive from the left. I play sports right-handed, but jacks left-handed. Given directions to turn right or left, I often have no idea what to do. When I was taught the etiquette of fine dining, I had no truck with the apparent convention of holding the food down with the fork in the left hand, cutting it with the knife in the right hand, then switching the fork from left to right hand in order to eat. What a lot of extra movement! I just used my left hand to shove the food into my mouth.

Which brings us to the left-handed quote of the season, from The Economist, which wrote on August 24: “The difficulty of pleasing different factions within the party has in the past caused Labour to make cack-handed interventions on immigration that manage to annoy supporters and fail to win over voters.” Cack-handed? If you’re wondering whether that prefix originates where you fear it originates, you are correct. Lack of adequate sanitary facilities prompted the custom of eating with the right hand and performing functions like cleaning one’s nether regions with the left. A left-handed person was seen, quite literally, as a dirty person. The custom persists today in countries like Pakistan, where I spent some time a few years ago. In the homes where I ate, napkins were nonexistent, and much food was eaten with the right hand, or with utensils held in the right hand. Sanitary practices were meticulous, usually involving water, but those actions were all meant to be taken with the left hand. I frequently caught myself lifting a spoonful of rice to my mouth with my left hand, and as I hurriedly switched I saw my hosts averting their eyes.

But really, Economist writers. Calling clumsy interventions left-handed is already an insult to millions of people (10 percent of the population, according to most studies). Replacing left with a colloquialism for feces adds insult to injury. One of the few advantages of having been partially “switched” (another advantage being the privilege of blaming any personal failings on having been left floundering in the middle) is that the world is easier to navigate. My hand doesn’t smudge my writing as it moves from left to right. Almost all scissors and knives work for me. Student desks work. Computers trackpads work. And so on. But my younger son was born left-handed and never switched, so I’ve seen up close how biased the world is against southpaws. He works in sports, where his leftie forehand and leftie pitch have proved an advantage, but elsewhere he always had to fight the tide — remind the teacher that he needed a different desk or accept brutal criticism of his maladroit cursive and use of scissors. When he was just a year old, just starting to reach for things with his left hand, I was chagrined to read new research “proving” that left-handed people lived shorter lives.

I’m not one to claim that left-handed people are more brilliant, artistic, or creative. But we no longer believe that the Devil works from the left hand, and regardless of how you clean yourself up, Purell is available. We can’t change everything about language — gauche isn’t going anywhere — but vivid writing doesn’t require gratuitous putdowns. My thesaurus lists about 20 synonyms for clumsy. Let’s retire cack-handed for good.



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