Photo: Wikimedia Commons
Yes, that’s right, you’re about to read yet more lefty stuff in the Guardian.Barack Obama’s inauguration this week should again revive hope among a minority group.
This group of people, simply because of the way they were born, have often been stigmatised by the language that’s used to describe them. But it’s not the group you’re thinking about.
Like me and just under 10% of the population, Obama is left-handed.
The lexical tools available to describe his left-handedness are as negatively loaded as the worst ones are to describe his race.
The interesting (and perhaps peculiar) trend here is, with handedness, that negativity doesn’t translate into active discrimination.
Language tends to reflect society’s anxieties. If I called Obama the N-word there’d be a justified intake of breath, at the very least. If I called him a cack-handed git, as my late gran often called me, it would be be playfully affectionate.
There’s no real evidence of serious left-handed prejudice (it’s no longer beaten out of us at school). It would be as absurd as all prejudices should be – why treat someone less equally simply because of how they were born?
The Australian mental health charity Beyond Blue uses left-handedness in a recent advert to highlight the ludicrousness of gay inequality. Therefore, unlike gay people, trans people, disabled people or other “minority” groups (I find this term a misnomer when discussing race or sex) we haven’t created taboo words for it.
A deeper inspection of the language used to describe left-handers reveals the (purely) lexical discrimination. I recently took up boxing classes where we are singled out as “southpaws”. I’ll always remember that paragon of articulate epigrams, Big Mo off of EastEnders, using the term “left-anded” to describe the new doctor in the square, whom she perceived to be gay.
Watching as a child, I carefully decoded her quip: she equated being left-handed with being “queer”. As someone who grew to be both of these things, it’s a good job I wasn’t easily confused.
It’s not just cockney that defames lefties. The binaries of left/right are as pronounced as those of black/white: left is gauche, loony, awkward, clumsy, unlucky, eccentric, sinister (left in Latin) and associated with the devil. Right, in juxtaposition, is correct, adroit (droit: right in French), dextrous (dexter: right in Latin), steadfast, proper, conservative, measured, authoritative.
Interestingly, as a man, Obama is often depicted as being rational and authoritative. The left language associations have had no bearing on his trustworthiness in power. Women in positions of power, on the other hand, are treated as “left” – other, loony, left-field.
Obama’s sex shapes stereotypes about him far more than his handedness does. In terms of world leaders, he’s not in a minority group – five of the last seven US presidents have been left-handed (a tradition begun by Thomas Jefferson): Gerald Ford, Ronald Reagan (ambidextrous), George Bush Sr, Bill Clinton and Obama. Had he not lost in 2008, the last president would have been John McCain, also a lefty. Our own prime minister, David Cameron, is left-handed. Ireland’s previous prime minister, Brian Cowen, was a lefty, as was his predecessor, Bertie Ahern.
Left-handedness may have helped them get there: these men have been required to reject the status quo and lead their own way. They may have been cack-handed, but they were no strangers to non-conformity – they were leaders, not followers.
The Anything Left-Handed website has collected fascinating historical, local dialectical and international examples of language about lefties. To say the majority of it is pejorative sounds melodramatic, even though it’s true. It’s amusing (and refreshing) how left-handers enjoy such freedom from real-life prejudice in spite of the frequent subliminal messages conveyed by dialects and languages to mistrust them as ungainly, accident-prone, odd, bad and – in some cases – evil.
The website reports that 88 different terms for left-handed, most of them uncomplimentary, were in use in 1950s Britain. Examples include buck-fisted, cow-pawed, corky dobber, dolly-pawed, gibble-fisted, golly-handed, keggy, squiffy and scoochy. They basically all sound like nicknames you’d give to Sloth from the Goonies. In the United States today, a left-footed snowboarder is called a “goofy” and a left-footed surfer is a “goofy-foot”.
Left-handers across the globe have united to report on lefty lexicon in their respective countries. The Arabic words for left-handers, feshlawe and A’asar, translate as “loser” or “difficult”. Down under, a mollie dooker means having girl-like fists. Whoever invented it should see how both the girls and southpaws at my gym give the right-handed men a left-hook for their lolly.
In Belarus, liewsha is a lefty; it means sneaky or mistrustful. In Bulgarian, lefteren means inefficient or inadequate. In Chinese, zuo is used, meaning hindering. In German, linkisch means awkward. Ciotóg – left in Gaelic – means roguish strange one. Perhaps not a million miles away from McCain and Cameron. In the Philippines, kaliwete is a synonym for both left-handedness and unfaithfulness.
Canhoto in Portugese means incapable, or is another name for the devil. Levsha in Russian means untrustworthy. Finally, in Venezuela mochola mocha may sound like a delicious coffee concoction, but it’s not. It translates as maimed-handed. In the face of such stigma, it’s amazing that left-handers have been so internationally successful.
If only we could be as relaxed in our language about all “minority” groups as we are about left-handers. Then a gay, trans, female or disabled world leader would be as unremarkable as one who’s left-handed. The archaic, stigmatising language behind a long-forgotten prejudice would hold weight nowhere except in a blog about language.
This article originally appeared on guardian.co.uk
NOW WATCH: Briefing videos
Business Insider Emails & Alerts
Site highlights each day to your inbox.