When you think of something (or someone) sinister, there’s a good chance it’s not a pleasant picture. Sinister is an adjective that means “threatening or portending evil, harm, or trouble.” That shadowy, sinister figure lurking in the dark alley, for example.
But the word sinister, which comes from Latin, originally meant “left” or “on the left hand or side.” Even back in Latin, though, sinister had already taken on more nefarious connotations of “wrong, unfavorable, injurious, perverse.” (The idea here is connected to historical associations of the left-hand as weaker, and therefore less favorable, than the right. More on this below.)
Of course, if you know a left-handed person, then you know they’re no more “wrong” or “injurious” or perverse than the righties out there.
About 10 percent of people around the world are left-handed, including some of the most famous people in history: Leonardo Da Vinci, for one, as well as Lewis Carroll, Albert Einstein, and Marie Curie. Not to mention all of the famous lefties of the modern era like Jimi Hendrix, Sir Paul McCartney, Oprah Winfrey, and Celine Dion. And let’s not leave out Ned Flanders, a beloved instance from fiction.
The list goes on, but the gist is that left-handed people make up a whole lot of the famous names we know for only being about 10 percent of the population, and left-handedness is something to celebrate. Hence left-handers day on August 13. This year, however, the day falls on Friday the 13th, which has its own sinister connotations.
Is left-handedness a bad omen?
As the data show, left-handers are in the minority in handedness (which simply means a tendency to use one hand more than the other), and humans, well, don’t have a great track record when it comes to understanding things outside of the dominant view. Most people have historically been right-hand dominant, and the idea of the right side as stronger has been mirrored throughout history’s myths and legends.
In Christianity, Eve, who gets the blame for falling to temptation, is depicted on Adam’s left side, for instance, and Jesus is depicted as sitting to the right of god. A description of Judgment Day in the Gospel of Matthew states that the sheep on the shepherd’s right will be brought to heaven while the goats on the left will go to the devil. In Judaism, ancient texts associate the right with strength and godliness and the left with weakness. The left is associated with uncleanliness in Islamic texts, and eating or drinking with the left hand is frowned upon.
The perception of left-handedness as lesser isn’t entirely in the past. In parts of Asia, as well as parts of North and East Africa, left-handedness still may be looked down on since it’s considered the hand used for unclean tasks. In China, the reported rate of left-handedness is much lower because of tradition, the difficulty of writing Chinese characters left-handed, and a cultural preference for right-handedness.
(It’s not just people who can have a left or right preference. Chemical compounds can as well, and that’s called chirality.)
Southpaws aren’t considered bad omens in most of the English-speaking world today, yet there’s still a bias against them that’s built into the language. For proof, consider how two left feet is an expression to suggest someone is clumsy. There’s also the phrase left-handed compliment, which, like backhanded compliment, means to compliment someone in a way that’s also unflattering.
But what about the right-handed folks out there? They, too, have some associated language, but with a much more positive vibe. Just as sinister originates from the Latin for left, dexter is the Latin for right, or on the right-hand side. That’s where we get the word dexterity, which means “skill or adroitness in using the hands or body.”
While sinister and dexterity come from Latin’s original “left” and “right,” the sides didn’t always mean something bad. Romans inherited the thinking that omens on the left were bad from Greece. Yet at the time, Roman augurs (religious officials who made proclamations based on nature) viewed signs to the left as auspicious or lucky because they faced south during their observations and had the rising sun on the east to their left. Now there’s a historical connection to lefties we can celebrate.
What exactly is ambidextrous and … ambisinister?
All this talk about left versus right may make the options feel binary. For some, there’s more to the equation (though the left and right biases are carried over in this language too).
The first to know is ambidextrous, which is an adjective that describes someone who’s able to use both hands equally well. Note the tie to the same dexter that’s connected to right handedness (ambi- is a prefix that means “both”). Here, ambidextrous has a positive connotation of unusually skillful. It’s also unusual to bump into someone who is truly ambidextrous: only about 1 percent of people can use both hands equally (more, however, are relatively skillful with both hands, which is called mixed handedness).
On the other side there’s ambisinister, which describes someone who is clumsy or unskillful with both hands. Sinister, of course, comes from the same left origin.
Sinister may have a linguistic and historic connection to left-handed people, but at the end of the day, lefties are as skillful, lucky, and dexterous (“skillful or adroit”) as right-hand dominant people.