Does “right” actually mean “right?” Does that mean “left” means “wrong?”

Little kids often get confused regarding the fact that “right” refers to a certain direction and also what is good, proper, and just. After all, “left” doesn’t mean wrongright?

Well, not exactly.

Left” comes from the Old English lyft, which means “weak, idle, foolish.” Whereas, the Old English riht means “just, good, fair, proper, fitting, straight.” In the 13th century “left” replaced the Old English word winestra as the common word for “the opposite of right.” Winestra literally meant “friendlier,” and linguists theorize that it was used as a euphemism to avoid referring to the side considered bad luck. Winestra survives in “sinister.”

The original version of “left” itself may have been simply a euphemistic taboo word, a kind of placeholder that allowed people to refer to something unlucky without naming or invoking it. In some religious practice, the name of a god is replaced by a substitute for related reasons.

(“Gosh” and “golly” are also euphemisms for an important religious word. Learn what they’re short for, here.)

The political sense of both left and right seems to have come from the seating of the members of the French National Assembly in the eighteenth century.

The term “lefty” has its roots in baseball slang from the late nineteenth century. The phrase “right off the bat” evolved from “hot from the bat,” which also came from baseball lingo.

The exclamation “Right on!” entered the slang lexicon in the 1920s, but it was popularized by the Black Panther movement decades later.

People who struggle to distinguish the difference between left and right are said to have left-right confusion. According to one researcher, about 15% of the population is afflicted with the condition. 

You may be wondering, “do other basic English words have such complex backgrounds?” The answer is a resounding yes. Get the alarming story behind “hello,” here. Even the most fundamental aspects of language, like numbers, have a deeper meaning. For example, here’s our explanation of what “twen-” and “ty” in “twenty” each mean on their own.

Are there seemingly simple parts of communication you’re curious about and would like to see explored right here? Let us know!