Left and right are not opposites. Left, (lyft, lif, licht or leicht) means weak, worthless or fragile. Right, Old English riht, of Germanic origin is related to Latin rectus ‘ruled’, and from an Indo-European root denoting movement in a straight line. With as many as 25% of the world's population left sided, no-one is entirely sure why right sidedness prevails. Anthropologists believe ambidextrousness was more common in previous times but with the development of tools this made significant difference and tool users hand to adapt to the sidedness of the tool makers. Heredity may also play a role in left handedness and is thought to be the result of a recessive trait. However, the scientific community remains divided between heredity and environment.
Preference for the right side may in part be explained by the worship of the sun and the earth's rotation. In the northern hemisphere turning into the sun meant turning right, right handedness would prevail; people living in the southern hemisphere may then prefer their left side. Sun worshipers like the Aztec, Incas, the Japanese Shinto, Egyptians and Romans all worshiped the sun and considered the right to be good. For most, the left was the dark side. In many religions the choice of which side was used symbolized reverence to diety, something that was noted by the Syrian philosopher, Iamblichus (245- 325).
In Antiquity different civilizations held different beliefs. The Greeks considered the left side their best and Romans regarded the left as lucky. The Egyptians always put their left foot first when crossing the threshold of a haunted house.
"When stretching forth your feet to have your sandals put on, first extend your right foot".
The Greek philosopher, mathematician was a committed vegan and would not have a student wear leather sandals.
Caesar Augustus (63 B.C. - 14 C.E.) was very superstitious on this point and considered it was very bad luck to cross the threshold of the door with the left foot. It is very bad luck to place the right foot in a left shoe. This superstition has been around for centuries and was written about since Roman Times. In Hudibras translated by Samuel Butler, Augustus Caeser’s untimely demise was forecast in rhythm.
"Augustus having by oversight Put on his left shoe for his right Had like to have been slain that day By soldiers mutinying for pay."
Gaius Petronius (27-66 A.D.), author of the Satyricon, and the Emperor Nero's advisor in matters of luxury and extravagance agreed. He advocated entering and leaving a dwelling house with the right foot foremost. To do otherwise was unlucky. Servants were positioned appropriately to ensure all those entering the house did so with their right foot. The person was called a footman and the position is with us to this day.
The word sinister for left originally referred to a pocket in a toga which always lay on the left hand side. The term sinister was later adapted to heraldry, but not before the terms became associated with the darker side of human behaviour. For centuries and in many countries and different cultures, left handedness was considered the weaker side, the second best, and morally, the evil side. Being left handed often refers to being in clumsy and may have its origins to a Roman assassin, when he failed in his duty subsequently burnt his right arm off.
The only positive reference to the left hand in the Bible relates to the commando style left handers or Benjamites. In the Book of Judges, Ehud was a left handed Benjamite yet ironically Ben Yamin means literally, Son of the Right hand. The word Satan has no connection with the left but is a Hebrew word meaning 'adversary'. Samael, the Prince of Demons and in Hebrew 'se'mol' means the left side. In the Vision of Judgment, St Matthew Ch XXV. The sheep (right side) are separated from the goats (left side) and many believe this scripture reference accounts for the association of sinister people with wickedness and evil doing. An old Jewish custom was to put on the right shoe on first without tying it, then the left sock. The put their left shoe on and went to the right sock and finished with the right shoe. To them the right side for the fortunate side.
Christian ritual certainly favours the right hand with three clear examples being the Benediction; making the sign of the cross; and giving communion. To give a blessing with the left hand was considered blasphemy and part of Black Mass. In countless paintings, the Christ figure is giving a blessing with his raised right hand.
In southern India there are two opposing castes the Right Hand Sect (Dakshina) and the Left Hand Sect (Vami or Vamachari) and many battles have taken place between them.
By the middle ages a common belief in Europe was witches caused injury by their touch of the left hand. Many rituals which celebrated sorcery included instructions to use the left hand for evil and the right for good. The mark of the devil was considered to be found on the left eyelid, shoulder or inner thigh. Moving in clockwise direction is common enough in folk dancing i.e. moving from left to right, however, to do the opposite was connected to satanic rituals.
Caesare Lombroso was a nineteenth century criminologist best remembered for his theories on the criminal foot, He noted most people who were left eyed or left footed were also left handed. At the time left sided people were viewed suspiciously and considered potential criminals, delinquents or mentally subnormal. Fortunately, there is no substance to this but until recently children were forced to adopt a right handed persuasion. In Lewis Carol’s Through the Looking Glass, the White Knight in referred to one who "might madly squeeze a right foot into the left hand shoe.
The left hand has been throughout history used for personal hygiene and although in modern society this distinction scarcely matters it is in many ways responsible for the taboo and physical prejudice against the left hand or unclean hand. Cack as in 'cack handed' or 'corrie fisted' means excrement and refers directly to the unclean hand. Note even today most toilets flush from a handle mounted on the left hand side of the system.
Left as in radical faction was introduced by Thomas Carlyle in 1837. It comes from cote gauche (left side), in the French Assembly of 1789 the conservative nobles sat to the presiding officer's right side, the radicals of the Third Estate to his left, and the moderates directly before him. A left footer is slang from Northern Ireland meaning a follower of the Catholic faith and a Molly-dooker was derived from Molly, an effeminate man, and dukes the slang for hands.
The left leg is considered weaker and there is good anatomical reason for this. In the womb, often the left leg gets caught against the mother's spin and is weaker as a result. The left foot forward of the military may be due to several reasons. Because the left leg is considered weaker it is common sense not to venture the right foot first. A more probable explanation is since the right arm holds the sword or spear; a left foot forward action will give the necessary momentum for the weapon to be in action after two paces. The Left foot forward traditional used by marching armies was a deliberate attempt to put fear in the hearts of the enemy, because the left foot meant a commitment to ‘no mercy.’
A southpaw or left handed person refers to a left handed pitcher in baseball and always faces south (in the Northern hemispheres). A southpaw boxer leads with his left fist. The term southpaw meaning left handed came from an incident described by Lord Baden Powel when greeting a defeated chieftain, he held out his right hand only to be told, men in the tribe welcomed the bravest of men with their left hand. From this story came the famous southpaw handshake of the boy scouts.
In the recent past left handed children were forced to write with their right hand. Better understanding has meant this is no longer true. Children generally use both hands until they are about 3 or 4. Then they begin to favour one hand over the other. One theory is left handers use the right side of their brain, the artistic side whereas right handers rely on the left side of the brain which is more word orientated. There is no scientific proof one way or the other.
Itchy palms usually mean left for bad luck and right for good. The right foot is marginally more ticklish then the left foot according to research conducted at Stirling University, Scotland. Regardless of handedness and footedness people seemed to be more ticklish on their right foot. Some experts consider the left side of the brain deals with emotions like laughter, and the right side deals with pain. The research indicated males were more ticklish than females.
Famous left handers include: Joan of Arc, King George VI, Harpo Marx, Charlie Chaplin, Rex Harrison, Kim Novak, Jesse Matthews, Judy Garland, Betty Grable, Olivia de Havailland, Mandy Rice Davis, Sir Paul McCartney, Danny Kaye, Terrance Stamp, Bill Clinton, Bob Charles (NZ), Phil Mickelson, Rus Cochran, & Richard Green (golfers) Rod Laver, Martina Navratilova, Jimmy Connors and John McEnroe, Ringo Starr, Ludwig van Beethoven, Pablo Picasso and Jimi Hendrix. Ambidextrous people include Plato, King David, Leonardo di Vinci, Michelangelo, and Lord Baden Powell
Barsley M 1966 The left-handed book London: Pan Books Ltd