I broke my right wrist over the Thanksgiving holiday and am clad in a cream-colored cast up to the elbow. Being right-handed, I’m finding it dodgy to correct student papers, grade exams, etc., at the very end of the term. I also find myself in numerous conversations about handedness and brain dominance. Invariably I mention that I was born lefthanded—a “soft lefty,” in some parlance—and my parents tried switching me until research came out suggesting that such persuasion was not good for the brain. I blame all my mental failures, needless to say, on having been left in the middle. On the other hand, by the time I get this cast off, I may be able to sign my name or swing a tennis racquet from the other side.
All of which has me thinking about the soft bigotry of our anti-lefty language. My break being the result of a fall, I can be accused of having two left feet. If I do manage to regain my lefty skills, I can claim ambidexterity, or the possession of two right hands. Researchers preparing a survey of English dialects in the 1950s, when I was born, found 88 words for lefthandedness, none of them pretty—buck-fisted, keggy-handed, squiffy. A left-footed snowboard is a goofy board; steering a surfboard with the left foot is goofy. If you’re clever, you’re adroit, or at the right; to be maladroit is literally to be bad at the right. We want to be seated at the right hand of whoever’s in power, not at the left hand.
Scanning recent book titles, I get The Left Hand (vampires), Left Hand of Darkness (alien world), Left Hand of God (corrupt monks), Left Hand of Justice (supernatural terror), Left Hand Magic (New York transformed into Golgotham), Pieces for the Left Hand (stories of “uncanny coincidence” and “tragic misunderstanding”). By contrast, we have The Right Hand (loyal, smart CIA agent), The Right-Hand Shore (saga of family farm in Maryland), If Thy Right Hand (dedicated mother), and The Right Hand again (commitment and honesty in the boxing ring). To be fair, at least the lefty books sound more imaginative.
Around the time my “hard lefty” son was born, Stanley Coren’s book The Left-Hander Syndrome proclaimed that lefthandedness was not merely a difference, but a brain defect that led to numerous health problems and, statistically, early death. Although later studies questioned such conclusions, fear for my kid, waving his lefty rattle, had already plunged into my heart .
Nor are the pejorative connotations of lefthandedness confined to English or to Western culture. The web site Anything Lefthanded lists put-downs in 39 different countries. When I visited Pakistan last spring, I tried mightily to observe what I understood to be an essential part of etiquette: that I eat only with the right hand, as the left hand was consigned to bathroom duties. (I’m glad I’m not there at the moment, for that and several other reasons.)
So while I pass my five weeks in wrist-cast purgatory, I intend to cast my lot firmly with the beleaguered lefties of the world. I shall deem righthandedness dull, uncreative, conforming, authoritarian, a purely default brain composition. I shall coin insults—northpaw, wine-handed, rabbit-fisted. As soon as the cast lifts off, I’ll trot back to the other side.