August 13 is observed annually as International Left Handers Day ito celebrate the uniqueness and differences of the left handers. I have been a “southpaw” for most of my life, so I this is a holiday that I whole-heartedly support. The day was first observed in the year 1976 by Dean R. Campbell, founder of the Lefthanders International, Inc. who created it to bring attention to certain people’s sinistrality and raise awareness of the advantages and disadvantages of being left-handed in a predominantly right-handed world. It celebrates their uniqueness and differences, who are from seven to ten percent of the world’s population. The day has also spread awareness on issues faced by left-handers e.g. the importance of the special needs for left-handed kids, and also the likelihood for left-handers to develop schizophrenia.
In classical Greece the word arisera had two meanings, “fine” or “best” as in “aristocrat” but it also meant “left-handed”. Using the word sinister for “left” is of later origin, deriving from sinus or “pocket side” since the Roman toga always had the pocket on the left. Old English used the words lift or left with a primary meaning of “weak” or “worthless”; in Middle English left survived as an indication of side. Gradually the terms left, left hand, and left-handed developed derogatory meanings, and even in Roget’s Thesaurus the word unskilled has “left-handed”, “equivocal”, and “sinister” as synonyms. In French, gauche means “left” and, of course, “awkward”, “clumsy” and “socially unrefined.”
The word left still has negative connotations. Recently a group of college freshmen and sophomores were asked their subjective feelings about the words left and right. Left was represented by bad, dark, profane, female, night, west, unclean, curved, limp, homosexual, weak, mysterious, low, ugly, incorrect, death. Right was thought to be good, right, saved, male, clean, day, east, straight, erect, strong, heterosexual, commonplace, high, beautiful, correct, life.
It has been estimated that there are 100 to 200 million left-handers in the world. Most generalizations on handedness allot a proportion of 8:1 or 9:1 for right-handedness over left-handedness, with men showing a slightly higher rate of left-handedness. There is a spectrum from strongly right-handed through bilateral ability to strongly left-handed. The word ambidextrous actually means 2 right hands.
In the Stone Age, or Neolithic times, tools were made of stone or natural objects such as wood, bone, or antlers. In the Bronze Age (4000 BCE), man learned to smelt and alloy copper with tin. Around 2000 BCE, man discovered how to make iron. Throughout these thousands of years, archeological evidence shows that people had no preference for right or left. However, during the late Bronze Age a significant increase in right-handedness is shown in the tools, and this trend increased during the Iron Age. About one third of aboriginal North American Indians seemed to have been left-handed or at least bimanual. The Incas thought that to be left-handed was lucky, and one of their great chiefs was Lloque Yupan Qui, which translates as left-handed. Certainly the modern human is predominantly right-handed.
In Norse mythology, Tyr (pronounced Tiw in English) was the God of War. He had his right hand bitten off by the wolf Fenrir, thereby becoming a leftie. Tyr is described as ‘being excellent in all manners of justice, fair play and right action’. It is his name we now use for the third day of the week, Tuesday (Tiw ‘s Day).
The complete concordance of the Bible has more than 1600 references to the hand, most of which are in praise, or at least approval, of the right hand. The psalms contain over 25 favorable references to the right hand. Similar sentiments can be found in both the Torah and Koran.
In Matthew 6, we are cautioned, “Let not thy left hand know what the right hand doeth,” and in Matthew 25, “He shall sit the sheep on his right, but the goats on the left. . . . Then he shall say also unto them on the left hand, Depart from me, ye cursed, into everlasting fire, prepared for the devil and his angels.” It is only in Judges (chapter 3) that one finds any real approval of the left hand. The Benjamites, whose name is derived from Ben Yamin, which means son of the right hand, had a number of left-handed warriors whose deeds are recorded. When fighting the Israelites, the 26,000 Benjamites had among them 700 left-handers, every one of whom “could sling stones at a hair breadth and not miss.” They must have been very accurate since in the first battle this “Tribe of the Hand” slew 22,000 Israelites.
No doubt these many legends in the Bible can be subjected to various translations, but I personally take exception to a recently issued translation of the Bible which, in the spirit of political correctness, no longer states that Christ sits at the right hand of God (Mark 16:19) but that he sits at the mighty hand of God — thereby keeping the left-handed from being slighted!
The left hand is much maligned in myths and legends. In early times it was thought that man was right-handed because during prayer he faced east and therefore the sun was on his right; unfortunately this does not apply in the Southern Hemisphere. An equally superstitious belief is carried out to this day when one throws spilt salt over the left shoulder to placate the evil devils that always lurk behind and to the left.
In medieval times the left hand was associated with the Black Arts, wizards, and sorcery. In witchcraft, evil spells are cast by laying on the left hand, and a left-handed oath is never to be trusted. This belief causes trouble for left-handers today when swearing on a Bible in court or when taking the oath on military induction. Left-handers not unreasonably raise their dominant hand, much to the wrath of bailiffs and sergeant-majors. Even in today’s marriages the wedding band is placed on the ring, or third, finger of the left hand since this is the “charm finger” of superstition, and a precious metal ring on this finger will enhance the power to ward off black magic.
There seems to be no good answer as to why people are left-handed. Logic would seem to dictate that the cause lies in the genes, yet simple genetics does not explain why left-handers are born in completely right-handed families. To cover this problem, “partial penetrance” is invoked. Whatever the explanation, it is a fact that many studies show a much higher incidence of left-handedness in identical twins than in normal births. The percentage of left-handed children born to two right-handed parents is 2%; to one right-handed and one left-handed parent, 17%; and to two left-handed parents, 50%. Studies of adopted children suggest that genetics rather than environmental factors is responsible for hand preference.
A rival school of thought blames left-handedness on “birth stress factors.” Psychologists at the University of Vancouver studied 1398 subjects and confirmed to their satisfaction an association between birth stress and left-handedness. They found that left-handed mothers are more likely to have birth-stressed offspring. This, they suggest, could be a plausible alternative to the genetic explanation. The Canadian psychologist Bakan believes that a reduced oxygen flow to the left hemisphere is the culprit; unfortunately, no brain damage has ever been demonstrated.
The sinister handed will no doubt be startled to know that professor of psychiatry Abram Blau opined that “sinistrality is thus nothing more than an expression of infantile negativism and falls into the same category as contrariness in feeding and elimination, retardation in speech, and general perverseness in so far as the infant with meager outlets can express it”. In his book The Master Hand (1945), he wrote, “We’re right-handed because we are left brained,” but French sociologist Robert Hertz in Death and the Right-Hand (1960) proposed, “We are left brained because we are right-handed”. Neither Plato nor Hertz believed that one hand is inherently superior to the other. However, throughout Hertz’s anthropological studies, he found the left is the hand of “perjury, treachery and fraud.”
About 60 years ago the American psychoanalyst Hendricks described the sinistral personality: “He is over meticulous in dress and social manner, devotes an excessive care to the collection of useless articles, is either brutal or coldly aloof, accepts and enforces a very rigid moral code, is often secretly superstitious and openly very obstinate, is with great difficulty diverted from a rigid course of sternly intellectual thought, constantly experiences the greatest difficulty in making decisions”. Left-handed artist James DeKay describes his peers as having “a maddening habit of thinking in ellipses rather than straight lines. A train of thought apt to meander through the whole alphabet on the way from A to B. An unmistakable offbeat demeanor in which a certain frowziness may be involved, a vagrant cowlick, a missing button, an unfocused gaze . . .”. However, others view the sinister personality more favorably. In 1969, neurosurgeon Joseph Bogan stated that “right-handers are a bunch of chocolate soldiers. If you’ve seen one you’ve seen them all. But left-handers are something else again”.
Whatever their personality quirks, it is significant that left-handers are twice as likely to qualify for membership in Mensa, the largest and oldest high IQ society in the world. When NASA needed imaginative, reliable, multitalented astronauts to explore the moon, it turned out that 1 out of every 4 of the Apollo astronauts was left-handed, which is 250% greater than statistical probability.
Children do not understand the difference between left or right until they are about six years old. However, a baby at its seventh month of life begins to favor one or the other hand. Until that age they are bimanual. Tabori points out that there are no perfectly “ambidextrous” people in the world. No matter what they may claim, they always have a bias for one hand or the other. The right and left hands are not mirror images of each other and have different functions and tasks. In general, the dominant hand is responsible for fine-precision manipulations, and the nondominant is responsible for holding or steadying. Ludwig showed that when people clap their hands, most will cup their nondominant hand and strike it with their dominant hand.
Forcible conversion of handedness produces what psychologists call a “misplaced sinister,” and these unhappy people have miserable childhoods. During World War II, King George VI of England made radio addresses to his nation in a characteristic slow and deliberate style of speech — a style forced on him because he had developed a stammer between ages 7 and 8. His father, King George V, was an intimidating, stern man and insisted that he write right-handed even though it was obvious he was a dominant left-hander. In adult life, he was an excellent athlete and played left-handed golf and tennis to championship standards. The personal secretary to King George VI, Sir John Wheeler-Bennett, was also left-handed and recorded how the teasing by right-handed children and the sense of being different from others produced “bitter humiliations, infuriating inhibitions and frustrations and orgies of self pity”. Hopefully such misplaced zeal has now disappeared from our school systems, particularly since it is recorded that a left-handed child’s stammer immediately stops if forced right-handed writing is abandoned.
Benjamin Franklin had a miserable left-handed childhood and as an adult wrote “A petition to those who have the Superintendency of Education” in which he recorded, “If by chance I touched a pencil, a pen, or a needle I was bitterly rebuked; and more than once I have been beaten for being awkward and wanting a graceful manner.” He ended his epistle by signing it, “I am with profound respect, Sirs, your obedient servant. THE LEFT HAND”.
The literature shows that a variety of disciplines have examined the relationship of left-handedness to health conditions such as allergies, auditory hallucinations, autoimmune disease, birth complications and prematurity, cancer, childhood behavioral abnormalities, childhood cognitive disorders, circulatory disease, coronary disease, Crohn’s disease, dyslexia, eczema, epilepsy in parents, head trauma, hormonal imbalances, immune disorders, learning disorders, migraines and tension headaches, myasthenia gravis, psychoses, reproductive problems, rotational fractures of the tibia, stammering and stuttering, stress-related problems, twinning, and ulcerative colitis, as well as injuries and accidents and factors such as alcohol consumption, cigarette smoking, homosexuality, and criminality.
A number of reports in the lay press have suggested that left-handers are prone to die earlier than right-handers. Some have said this is reasonable because left-handedness has been linked to three leading causes of death in our society: alcoholism, smoking, and breast cancer. It seems that these links are weak at best. However, left-handed and even “ambidextrous” women can breathe easily because in the Iowa Women’s Health Study five-year mortality follow-up of nearly 40,000 women aged 55 to 69, left-handed women had no increase in mortality risk compared with right-handed or “ambidextrous” women (30). In patients with breast cancer in Sweden, left-handedness is significantly less common (1.5%) than in the general female population (5%) (31). In the USA, a study of 8801 hospitalized patients showed that the rate of left-handedness was significantly lower in breast cancer patients.
The same study showed that in men left-handedness was not associated with high levels of alcohol consumption but was associated with an increased rate of fractures. Rotational fractures of the tibia occur more commonly in the left tibia of left-handed individuals than in their right. This appears to be related to the fact that right-handers have a predilection for counterclockwise turning of the body and left-handers for clockwise turning. The increased risk “seems to be associated with rotation deviations from the normal mechanisms of posture control and motor performance that are required in attempts to parry a fall”.
Early deaths were studied in nearly 50,000 Swedish military conscripts aged 18 to 21 inducted in 1969 to 1970 and followed through 1989. Nine hundred and fifty-four people died in this cohort, of whom 82 were left-handed. This corresponds to a relative risk rate of 1.0 for left-handers compared with right-handers. The relative risk rate of death by motor vehicle was 1.3. Thus, there may be a slightly increased relative risk for left-handed drivers. A report from Canada studying patients with traumatic brain injuries showed an increased prevalence of left-handers, particularly those involved in motor vehicle accidents.
In a 1995 study in the Journal of Hand Surgery relating hand dominance to major hand injury, 125 patients with digital amputations were contrasted with 116 patients treated for minor hand injuries. Left-handed individuals had 49 times greater relative risk of an amputation than right-handers. Minor hand injuries occurred at a rate proportional to the distribution of left-handedness in the general population.
According to a study by Yale researcher Jadon Webb and his colleagues published in the October-December 2013 issue of the journal SAGE Open, it was found that among those with mental illnesses, people with psychotic disorders like schizophrenia are much more likely to be left-handed than those with mood disorders like depression or bipolar syndrome. About 10% of the U.S. population is left-handed. When comparing all patients with mental disorders, the research team found that 11% of those diagnosed with mood disorders such as depression and bipolar disorder are left-handed, which is similar to the rate in the general population. But according to Webb, a child and adolescent psychiatry fellow at the Yale Child Study Center with a particular interest in biomarkers of psychosis, “a striking of 40% of those with schizophrenia or schizoaffective disorder are left-handed.”
“In general, people with psychosis are those who have lost touch with reality in some way, through hallucinations, delusions, or false beliefs, and it is notable that this symptom constellation seems to correlate with being left-handed,” said Webb. “Finding biomarkers such as this can hopefully enable us to identify and differentiate mental disorders earlier, and perhaps one day tailor treatment in more effective ways.”
For a left-hander, simply eating a meal at a counter can be hazardous; he tends to put his elbow into his left-sided neighbor’s soup or sandwich — that is, if he can find his correct instruments because they will have been laid with his knife and glass of water to his right. Try opening a can of tuna with a manual can opener using your left hand — your arms will be crossed, and you’re likely to cut yourself on the lid. Hold a measuring cup with your left hand — the non-metric fractional amounts will be facing unhelpfully away from you. A left-handed violinist, like Charlie Chaplin, will not only have to have a left-handed strung violin but would have to sit at the left end of the strings to avoid hitting his string mates.
Left-handed surgeons need special left-handed scissors, as do hairdressers. Most items for manual use are manufactured for right-handers, including corkscrews and door handles (most doors open to the left). Rifle butts and the inside rifling are spiraled to the left to balance the right-handed pull of the average person. Garden secateurs, scythes, and sickles are not usually available for the sinister handed. Men’s double-breasted suits are made for right-handers; watch a left-hander trying to button up the inside button! Toilet paper dispensers are virtually always on the right, as are the handles on most water fountains. Classrooms can be truly exasperating for lefties with those arm-contorting, wrist-wrenching desks, three-ring binders and spiral notebooks built for right-handed writers.
In present-day society, the advantages of being left-handed are few indeed. One definite advantage is in aiming coins into the tollbooth basket. If you are musical and play the piano, Benjamin Britten, Prokofiev, and Ravel have each written you a concerto for your left hand. The latter wrote it, he said, “not so much to show what the left hand can do, but to prove what can be done for the appendage that suffers from sinistral stigma.” If you favor wind instruments, give up on the saxophone but try the French horn, a challenging instrument, but one keyed for the left hand. When I was enrolled in the sixth grade at Greenwood Elementary School upon our 1977 move to Shawnee, Kansas, from Hendersonville, Tennessee, I was assigned to play the French horn in the school orchestra. The fact that I was left-handed did nothing to improve my musical ineptness on the instrument!
Jack Fincher maintains that the typewriter favors a left-hander. No doubt this is because the vowels are on the left half of the QWERTY keyboard both in typewriters and computer keyboards. Stewardesses is the longest word in the English language that is typed using only the left hand.
The Scouting handshake is with the left hand. Their founder (Lord Baden-Powell) learned while in Africa that this was a demonstration between tribes of great trust and friendship and he thought this would be a great gesture for Scouts to use.
Many athletes are left-handed. Ben Hogan was left-handed but played golf right-handed because he was told to put his greater strength into his leading arm; he always regretted changing sides. Competitive swimmers who are left-handed are said to benefit from an ability to adjust more readily to underwater vision. Maybe this helped Mark Spitz win seven Olympic gold medals in one meet. No doubt for some good reasons left-handed polo playing is forbidden.
One occupation in which it is an advantage to be left-handed is baseball. A lefty pitcher, such as Steve Carlton, can monitor first base during his windup and shorten a runner’s lead. Left-handed pitchers are called southpaws because in the old West Side Chicago ballpark, their left arms would be on the south side since they were facing west. Boxing later appropriated the term for left-handed punchers. There are no left-handed catchers, but if there were they could throw to second base very rapidly. A left-handed batter is facing first base at the end of his swing and can readily start his run to base. The left-handed first baseman can easily throw to second base on a double play and with his gloved right hand can cover a lot of the infield. It is said that about 30% of professional pitchers and batters are left-handed, and nearly 50% of first basemen are lefties. Left-handed tennis players usually represent about 40% of the professional ranks at any one time. Recent notables have been Jimmy Connors, Rod Laver, John McEnroe, Martina Navratilova, and Guillermo Vilas.
Many publications list numerous lefties in a variety of occupations; in any random group of about 100, nearly 50% will be entertainers of some sort. It is said that the right-handed deal well with abstractions such as mathematics and that the left-handed translate everything into visual imagery, and this explains why so many creative people have been lefties and why they tend to dominate show business.
In his book Lefties, Jack Fincher enumerates more than 50 entertainers and a slightly smaller number of prominent lefties “who were not entertainers.” These include such luminaries as Alexander the Great, Napoleon Bonaparte, Julius Caesar, Charlemagne, Albert Einstein, Queen Mother Elizabeth, Prince Charles, Judy Garland, Lou Gehrig, Clarence Darrow, Uri Geller, King George VI, Danny Kaye, Sandy Koufax, Betty Grable, Cloris Leachman, Marcel Marceau, Harpo Marx, Paul McCartney, Marilyn Monroe, Edward R. Murrow, Stan Musial, Lord Nelson, Arnold Palmer, Ross Perot, Cole Porter, Robert Redford, Nelson Rockefeller, Ringo Starr, Emperor Tiberius, Tiny Tim, Queen Victoria, and Henry Wallace.
Additional lefties include musicians Eminem, Kurt Cobain, Wynton Marsalis, Paul Simon (although he plays guitar right-handed) and Jimi Hendrix (who, from age 12, played re-strung right-handed guitars upside down). Actors and entertainers Oprah Winfrey, Jay Leno, Jon Stewart, Whoopi Goldberg, Ben Stiller, Jerry Seinfeld, Matt Groening (and Bart Simpson), Diane Keaton, Julia Roberts, Robert De Niro, Keanu Reeves, Sarah Jessica Parker, Lisa Kudrow, Angelina Jolie, Robert Redford, Goldie Hawn, Morgan Freeman, Nicole Kidman, and Tom Cruise are left-handed as well. We also have W.C. Fields who said, “If the left side of your brain controls the right side of your body, and the right side of your brain controls the left side of your body, then left-handed people must be the only ones in their right minds.”
There are not many left-handed artists, but several are world famous: Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, M.C. Escher, Milton Caniff, Hans Holbein, Paul Klee, Bill Mauldin, Pablo Picasso, Raphael, and Ronald Searle. Da Vinci, actually wrote most of his personal manuscripts in mirror writing. He is also said to have been able to write the same text simultaneously with both hands, the right hand writing normally and the left hand in mirror writing. Michelangelo’s fresco on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel shows Adam receiving life from God through the left hand.
Among the left-handed Presidents of the United States are Barack Obama, George Bush, Bill Clinton, Gerald Ford, James Garfield, Herbert Hoover, and Harry S. Truman. Ronald Reagan should also be considered, since he was forcibly converted from left to right in childhood. Gerald Ford was an odd lefty because he was left-handed only when sitting down; he played golf, wrote on a blackboard, and threw a ball right-handed.
Joan of Arc was left-handed despite the fact that many drawings show her holding her sword in her right hand. The Scottish Kerr family are renowned for producing many left-handed progeny — so many in fact that they built their castles with left-handed spiral staircases so they could more easily defend them.
Occasionally prominent criminals are left-handed, such as Billy the Kid and the Boston Strangler. Jack the Ripper practiced his mutilations in Whitechapel, London, adjacent to the Royal London Hospital. The knife wounds were clearly made by a left-hander, and as the number of victims increased, it is recorded that attendance in the gynecological outpatient clinic at the hospital dropped precipitously. No staff member of the hospital was ever accused, and it is now thought that the perpetrator was the Duke of Clarence, Queen Victoria’s grandson.
The greatest of the Arapaho tribe in North America was Chief Left Hand, so named from his childhood habit of using his left hand.
Many other left-handers can be on various online lists, including one that is published in English, French, Spanish and Pig Latin. A list of left-handed terms can be found on the website of the Association of Left-Handers.
The animal kingdom also has its left-handers. Kangaroos and gorillas are left-hand dominant. All Australian Sulphur-Crested White Cockatoos are left-handed and the majority of other Australian parrots are left-handed. Nearly half of all polar bears, chimpanzees and cats show a preference for the left side. Most mollusk shells twist from left to right.
In the U.S. state of West Virginia, there is a small town called Left Hand. However, it got its name not because a significant portion of its population was left-handed but because it was on the left fork of the three-forked Seeder River. Left Hand, West Virginia (ZIP code 25251), is located just a few miles from the similarly intriguingly-named town of Looneyville.
Left-handers can learn to use their right hand, after an injury for example, far easier than a right-hander can with their left hand. While I was a young boy, I broke my left arm several times beginning in kindergarten with the last injuring occurring during junior high school (grade 9 or 10). That last accident not only included a broken left arm but also a shattered left knee. When my left arm was in a plaster cast in the weeks following these injuries, I was usually forced by teachers to write (poorly) with my right hand. During my final recuperative period, the school assigned a (pretty) cheerleader a year older than I was to be my “secretary”; she sat with me in all of my classes and I would dictate notes to her. She also wrote my assignments. I made no attempt at right-handedness during this period.
Whether one is left-handed or right-handed, good handwriting comes from a combination of four principal elements:
- Page orientation
- Pencil grip
- Lettering formation
The website for the Australian shop called Lefty’s! includes a page of leftie handwriting tips, in addition to a wealth of left-handed information.
Left-handers seem to be one of the few minorities in our society with virtually no feel for common identity, no collective power or goals, and little or no organization. At least we have our own special day today, first proclaimed on August 13, 1976. The date was selected because it was not yet a holiday and happened to be Friday the 13th during that Bicentennial year. The organization that started the movement is now defunct but the day itself has its own website. It is said that there now exists an Association for the Protection of the Rights of Left-handers, but I am not clear what “rights” they have, although they are said to be campaigning for allowable use of the left hand in taking oaths and saluting.
Left-handers can take solace from Benjamin Franklin. Despite his miserable left-handed childhood, he became a philosopher, statesman, author, and inventor not to mention being the first Postmaster General of both the United States and Canada. One of his best ideas was to combine a chair with a cradle and make that most comforting piece of furniture, the rocking chair. Sit in your rocking chair and realize it probably won’t be long before some hungry left-handed lawyer brings a class-action suit under the Americans with Disabilities Act.
Much of this article is sourced from a study by Dr. Adrian E. Flatt of the George Truett James Orthopedic Institute at the Baylor University Medical Center in Dallas, Texas. It was published in the October 1999 issue of the BUMC Proceedings.
I have managed to find just one stamp specifically commemorating left-handedness although there are numerous stamps that depict one or both hands, usually as seen in famous paintings and other artwork. As I was finishing up this article, I happened to stumble upon a 35-page thread on one of the stamp collecting online forums and have started to peruse it for additional leftie stamps.
Scott #414 was released by the Croatian Postal Administration of Bosnia-Herzegovina (known as Mostar) on August 13, 2015, to commemorate International Left Handers Day, apparently the only such commemorative to date. It is denominated at 2.00 marks and was printed using offset lithography, comb-perforated 14. There were 30,000 stamps printed in sheets of eight by Zrinski d d Cakovec of Croatia.