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Looking at language: Left Hand, Right Hand

Posted in Interesting Words, Language on Tuesday, 11 June 2013

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This edited article about language originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 288 published on 22 July 1967.

St Louis, picture, image, illustration

On the shield to the left of the picture we see the French king’s personal arms, the fleur-de-lys of France (dexter)impaled with the arms of Louis IX's wife, Marguerite of Provence (sinister) by Dan Escott

The ancient Greeks and Romans were superstitious people and their lives were dominated by omens and oracles. In early times, those portents which appeared on the left-hand side (a flying bird, for example, or a clap of thunder) were considered unlucky. The Latin word for the left hand was sinistra, and “on the left” was sinister. We adopted this to describe an incident or individual of an ominous nature.

For the right hand the Latin word was dextra, and since most people perform actions more ably with their right hand, this too gave us an adjective, dextrous (sometimes spelt dexterous), and a noun, dexterity, denoting manual skill or expert manipulation. In the special language of heraldry, the words sinister and dexter refer to the position of the devices on a coat of arms. However, since the shield was always described from the point of view of its bearer, who stood behind it, when looking at it we see the emblems described as sinister on the right hand side, and dexter on the left.

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