Word Connections: Left & Right

The time has come again to follow a twisty path of word connections across continents and centuries. Today we start with the words “left” and “right”, following the connections to surprising destinations.

When the words “left” and “right” are presented as a pair, we immediately think of their meanings as opposites — two opposite directions, or two opposite sides of a person or object. For example, we may think of turning left versus turning right. Or we may think of the left hand versus the right hand. But if we present one word without the other, then the meaning is less clear, because both words have multiple meanings. “Left” can be the past tense or past participle of “leave”, as in “I left my keys in the car” or “Elvis has left the building.” “Right” can have several meanings, the most common being a synonym for “correct”, as in “I am always right.” But another crucial use of the word is to refer to a freedom or entitlement, as in the Bill of Rights or the right to bear arms (not to be confused with the right to bare arms, a freedom that many of us appreciate during summer).

As it turns out, the two main meanings of “left” are unrelated to each other, but the various meanings of “right” are all connected. In other words, the two meanings of “left” came from different origins, and it is just a coincidence that today there are two different words called “left” that share a common spelling and pronunciation. But the various meanings of “right” all spring from a common origin, and over many centuries the word has expanded to have many meanings.

The word “right” comes from the Old English riht, whose original meaning was “straight” — in other words, not bent or crooked. This word could also mean direct or erect, two concepts that are closely related to straightness. These meanings are still attached to the word “right” in certain contexts, such as “The spoon is right there” or “He is standing upright”. Because early Western culture placed a high value on objects that were straight (in contrast to objects that were crooked), the word “right” also took on the meaning of “good” and “correct”. Therefore you can say “Do the right thing”, implying a moral correctness or goodness. Or you can say “I know the right answer”, implying a factual correctness. The concept of moral goodness is also reflected in phrases such as “He is an upright gentleman” or “She is a righteous woman.” Conversely, the word “crooked” became associated with evil. And so today you can say “I think that politician is a crook”.

In a rather interesting leap, the concept of “morally correct” eventually expanded to mean “what someone deserves”. Instead of saying “It is right that you should inherit your father’s land”, you could say “It is your right to inherit this land.” After a bit more evolution, the word “right” came to reflect the concept of a legal entitlement or privilege. So today we can say “I will stand up for my rights”, or talk about our legal rights under a democracy.

Most people in the world — somewhere between 70% and 90% — are right handed. Because of this, people in ancient times came to think of right-handedness as being correct. They saw left-handedness as being wrong or flawed, or perhaps even evil. Therefore the dominant hand (for the majority of people) became known as the “right” hand, literally meaning the correct hand. The word “left” comes from the Old English lyft, meaning “weak”, and was used to designate the weaker, non-dominant hand. Today it would seem odd if we were to call one hand the correct hand, and the other hand the weak hand — but this was the mindset of the time. In contrast, the other word “left” — the past tense of “to leave” — is derived from the Old English word lǣfan, and it has kept its original meaning.

After the words “right” and “left” came to be associated with the two hands, it was natural to expand the meanings into a general sense of direction. If you tell someone to turn right, it means to turn in the direction of their right hand. If you tell someone to turn left, it means to turn in the direction of the left hand. The upshot is that the word “right” had a long history of use, along with several different meanings, before it became associated with a direction.

It turns out that English is not the only language where a word that originally meant “straight” has expanded into so many other meanings. In French the word droit can mean the direction right, as in the right hand or turning right. It can also mean a legal right. Spanish has exactly the same thing, where derecho can mean the direction right, or it can mean a legal right. In both of these languages, the word also still carries the original meaning of “straight”. So in French, “straight ahead” is tous droit, and in Spanish straight ahead is todo derecho. In both of these phrases, the first word means “all”. Therefore, in both cases, the phrase that means straight ahead is literally “all right”. In English we also use the phrase “all right”, but we use it to mean that something is in a reasonably acceptable state, as in “I just fell down a flight of stairs, but I’m all right.”

To an English speaker learning French or Spanish, it can be confusing that the same word is used when telling someone to make a right turn or to go straight. You have to listen to the entire phrase, not a single key word, to understand whether you need to make a turn or keep going ahead. In French or Spanish, to tell someone to make a right turn, you exclude the word that means “all” and include a word that means “turn”. So in French you could say tournez à droite, and in Spanish you could say dobla a la derecha or gire a la derecha. (Also note that the word endings have changed, indicating that the word for “right” has changed from masculine to feminine.)

In French, the word for left is gauche, which originally meant awkward. One hand came to be known as the “correct” hand (droit) and the other came to be known as the “awkward” hand (gauche). Just as in English, the meanings of the two words expanded from hands to directions. The word “gauche” has also entered English, keeping the original meaning of awkward, but shedding any reference to a direction. On the flip side, in English we have the word “adroit”, meaning skillful in the use of the hands or the mind. This word is also borrowed from the French, a direct reference to the right hand — the skilled hand, rather than the awkward hand.

So far, we have seen that the English, French, and Spanish words for “right” all derive from ancestral words meaning “straight”. But the story is different for Italian, where the word for “right” is destra. This word comes from the Latin dexter, which actually meant “right” — as in the direction or the right hand — right from the beginning. In English we have several words that are derived from dexter, such as “dexterity”, again referring to a skill in using the hands — and again implying that the right hand is the skilled hand. To compound the insult to left-handed people, we also have the word “ambidextrous”. This word refers to a person who is skilled in using either hand — but literally it means having two right hands.

The Italian word for “left” is sinistra, from the Latin word sinister, which meant the left-hand direction. The word “sinister” has been absorbed into English, taken directly from the Latin, but it has completely lost its association with a particular direction. Instead, we use the word to mean “evil”. (Imagine someone telling you, “At the next intersection, turn sinister!”) Pity the poor left-handers, who have had to deal with so many negative associations, not to mention outright prejudice!

In Spanish, the word for “left” is izquierda, which bears no resemblance to the corresponding French, Italian, or Latin words. A similar word appears in other languages from the Iberian peninsula, including Portuguese, Catalan, and Basque. Linguists know that izquierda is a pre-Roman word — which means that the word was used in what is now Spain prior to the conquest of the area by the Roman Empire and the consequent introduction of the Latin language. Somehow the word survived the conquest. While it is not completely certain where on the Iberian peninsula that the word originated, a strong possibility is that the word came from Basque.

The German word for “right” is recht. The similarity to English is more than superficial. At one time the “gh” in the word “right” was pronounced just like the “ch” in recht. And as in English, the original meaning of the word recht was “straight”. The word is closely connected to the Latin word rectus, which means straight or correct. Today we have a great number of words in English that are descended from rectus. To “rectify” a situation means to correct the situation, or in conversational English, to “straighten it out”. A “rectangle” is a shape where all of the interior angles are “right” angles (in other words, 90 degrees).

We also have in English the adjectives “direct”, “erect”, and “correct” — all related to being straight or to being right. Each of these words has a Latin equivalent from which it originated — directus, erectus, and correctus — and all were derived by adding a prefix to rectus. There is also in English a noun form of each of these words, such as “direction” and “correction”. Furthermore, the Spanish words for “right” (derecho) and the French word for “right” (droit) are both derived from the Latin word directus — the same root as our English word “direct”.

We now conclude our twisty path of word connections for the words “left” and “right”. Despite a few sinister implications, we have adroitly followed the directions to end up right where we should be. Stay tuned for future episodes of this Word Connections series!

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