Saturday, April 21, 2018

How left and right became good and bad

The adjective δεξιος (dexios) means right (the opposite of left) and is used 54 times in the New Testament; see full concordance. Particularly compared to the "left," the "right" has a decidedly positive connotation. In English we use the word "right" for things that are proper and just, whereas our word "left" hails from an ancient word that means "foolish." "Left" is also the homograph of the past tense and participle of the verb to leave, which is why it's not right to be left.

The Latins called the left sinister (hence our negative English word "sinister") and the right they called dexter (hence our positive word "dexterity," and of course the name Dexter). The Hebrews associated the right both with the south and with strength and alliance (hence the name Benjamin, or Son of the Right Hand), and thus the left with the north and weakness and hostility. The word for "right" in French is the same as our English word "adroit," meaning resourceful, whereas the French word for left also means clumsy or awkward. In English a clumsy person has two left hands.

But while the curious distinction between right and left can not be denied, it's hardly a simple matter of good versus bad. In fact, the modern folkloristic distinction between right and left is rather clearly rooted in a very sensible ancient one. And it's that venerable ancient usage that is reflected in the Bible.

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