Monday, 3 September 2012


I am, temporarily, both sinister and gauche. Sinister comes from the fact that bad omens were believed to appear on the left hand side (or west side if you're facing north like a good soothsayer). Gauche because to be gauche is to be as clumsy as someone who uses their left hand.

Even the word left comes from the Old English lyft meaning weak and foolish.

Etymology is no comfort to someone who can't use his right hand. I am maladroit.


  1. I am also both sinister and gauche, though not temporarily. And I reckon we should try to reclaim these words.

    The one I really dislike, though, is ambisinister. Which is, apparently, the antonym for ambidextrous. But where as ambidextrous can be translated as 'skilled on both sides' as well as 'right-handed on both sides', sinister doesn't mean clumsy.

  2. In Italian we say avere due mani sinistre ("have two left hands") which is roughly equivalent to "be all fingers and thumbs".

    1. I remember when I first found out what 'two left feet' really meant. I was furious. I'd always supposed that it was just the idea of having two feet the same instead of a matching pair, which would no doubt make you clumsy.

  3. Castilian Spanish, and many of the related languages, while having siniestro from the classic Latin, more commonly use "izquierda" in directions. This is presumed to come from a mysterious pre-roman language. Some people say it is from Basque meaning twisted or awkward hand.

    The latin-derived derecho means right or direct or straight. Which can make directions confusing when the difference between straight on or turn to the right is "a la" and the -a or -o ending.

    The insulting "zurdos" meaning "lefthanders" is also thought to be from Basque/something earlier. Zur is stingy or miserly in Basque.

    There are tales that Basques are more left-handed than other peoples but that is apparently just a back-construction.

  4. The Romanian word for left is "stânga", which seems to come from the vulgar Latin word for tired - "stancus" (see also Italian "stanco"). A left-handed person is called "stângaci" (word that also means clumsy)

  5. On this subject, it's fascinating to look at the obvious etymological similarities between the various Indo-European words for "right" and then look at all the words for "left," which clearly have no etymological connection... and then make the connection about why languages would need to repeatedly replace their words for "left."

  6. Drew, wanted to write that. Too long for a one-handed chap.

  7. I remember reading a long time ago that in Latin dextra means right and sinistra means left, but in Greek aristera (from which we get "aristocratic") means left. So the Romans and Greeks disagreed on whether left-handedness is a bad thing (unless being an aristocrat was bad also). I never learned the Greek word for right-handed.

  8. I think aristera comes from ari and stera, not aristos. Stera is presumably related to Ancient Greek stereo, to deprive, bereave or rob though there are other related words meaning firm or solid.

    Aristeros was used in ancient times to mean "boding ill, ominous", "awkward, erring" and "sinister". Epiaristeros meant gauche.

    Dexia meant right hand and adexios was "not right-handed, awkward". To welcome was "to greet with the right hand", dexioomai. And all the usual prejudice.

  9. Ooops, I should have credited the wonderful Perseus resource that among many, many other digitilisations has several Ancient Greek lexica including Liddell Scott:

    Great fun for all the family.