Dextro and Sinistro: Historical Origins

(Latin: right and left)

In the study of origins, it was always better to be "right" than wrong, or even "left"!

Words associated with the right side are generally complimentary or have signified something desirable, but those pointing to the left are quite the opposite. For example, even in modern times, everyone tries to get up on the "right" side of the bed and hopes to stay on the "right" side of one's boss; that is, if the person is in his/her "right" mind.

Other languages reflect the same bias in favor of the right and against the left. In Latin, the word for "right" is dexter, from which has come the English word dexterous or dextrous; meaning "skillful". This is what a person who uses the "right" hand is expected to be.

An ambidextrous person should be even more skillful, since he is described as having two "right hands.

On the other hand, the Latin sinister is the left hand, that is, the wrong hand. Furthermore, left-handers were thought to be unlucky.

In Roman augury, or fortune telling, birds that appeared on the left side were interpreted as being bad luck; however, those on the right side presaged good luck. Now, in modern English applications, sinister means evil or ominous.

"Lefties" have not been regarded with a positive attitude even in French and Old English

The French word for "left" is gauche (GOHSH), which indicates awkwardness or lack of social graces. "A guest who drinks from the finger bowl, no matter how dexterously he handles it, is still gauche."

English also has favored the right over the left. The word "right" developed from Old English riht, which meant "to lead straight; to guide; to rule." Left evolved from Old English lyft, which meant "weak".

English prejudice against the left can be seen in such terms as "two left feet", meaning "awkward", and "left-handed compliment", which is not considered as a compliment!

—Excerpts from The Story Behind the Word by Morton S. Freeman;
iSi Press; Philadelphia; 1985; pages 228-229.

Related "right" and "left" units: dextro-; sinistro-.

Related "hand" units: cheiro-, chiro-; Hands as Objects of Art; Hands: Mechanical Marvels; manu-; palm.