Sinister Meandering

By I. L. Mancino
Date Added: 17/07/2009


A few months ago, a journalist wrote in a knowing Cosmopolitan sort of way that the proportion of left-handers in this country is roughly equivalent to that of homosexuals. He mentioned a figure of about 15 per cent. Whether this is valid for the latter category, I have no means of telling, but I believe it to be a reasonable estimate for the former - one of the few non-protesting, unrepresented, oppressed minorities in modern society.

Unless one is left-handed, the degree of disadvantage is not easily appreciated. Of course, the example of golf-clubs is well known; but what of the left-handed dentist.  Eating in company is a trial for a left-hander. If he is having a snack at a lunch counter, his left hand is apt to collide with his neighbour's right; while, if he is seated formally at dinner, the waiter offers the vegetables from the wrong side, and the serving spoon and fork will be the wrong way round. Alighting from his train, the commuter will find that he has to be careful because the doors and handles are fitted for right-hand use. If he wants to make a phone-call from the station, the apparatus in the kiosk is so designed that the receiver must beheld with the left hand to leave the right hand free to insert coins and dial the number: and if he hasn't got his money ready, he will have to fumble for coins in the little inner pocket on the right side of his jacket. Scissors, screws, stubs on cheque books, wall-can openers, hand-drills - the list is endless.

Each instance seems trivial in itself, but is just another of those threads that form part of the spider's web in which the left-hander is entangled. And, as electronic devices proliferate, every gadget is constructed to be 'ergonomic', a euphemism for serving the convenience of the right-handed.

Monkeys and apes are ambidextrous. At an early stage in the development of homo sapiens, cerebral hemispheres of the brain became specialised, left-handed activities being controlled by the right hemisphere, and vice versa. The mechanism for linking and co-ordinating both sides is a sophisticated communication system known as the corpus callosum. The left hemisphere seems to be associated with word-handling, logical sequence and analytical thought, the right with patterns, forms and synthesis. A further element in this little-understood process is 'dominance', i.e. one hemisphere is more dominant than the other. Handwriting involves both linguistic capacity and learning intricate motor control. With most people these qualities are housed in the dominant left hemi-sphere, and this gives rise to right-handedness. Dominance of the right hemisphere is less common and usually leads to left-handedness. Neurologists still find the whole business mysterious; it is thought, however, that writing may be more complex for left-handers. Some people may be a mixture of types; for example, a left-hander writing, or doing other things, with his right hand. The existence of such 'cross-laterality', as it is called, underlines the importance of being absolutely certain which hand preference a child has for writing.

An instructive case cited in medical literature concerns a 49-year-old woman, who, while recovering from a stroke, was unable to write either spontaneously or to dictation, but could copy the printed word without difficulty. She was, incidentally, a left-hander who wrote with her right hand.

Not surprisingly, the development of dominance in the brain is mirrored in cultural dominance. This can be clearly seen in linguistic usage, where the right side is connected with the just, the good and the straight, and the left with the unfortunate, the malign and the crooked.

The following table shows how language perpetuates prejudice:

French gauche (clumsy) droit (straight, just)
German links, hence

linkish (clumsy)

Recht (law, authority)
Italian mancino (perfidious


Spanish zurdo (clumsy)  
Latin sinister (ill-omened) dexter (root of 'dexterity')
Japanese hiderakiki (mad)  
English left (from OE='worthless') lefthanded (malicious, as in a 'left-handed compliment') right ('correct'). Cognate words: direct, regime, royal, rectitude

No-one knows why an inherited tendency in favour of the right hand is universal as far back as history can reliably go, any more than why the bats that sleep, in the caves of Carlsbad, New Mexico, invariably fly in an anti-clockwise spiral when they swarm out. Anthropologists have yet to find a society in which left-handedness is the rule.

Once again; handwriting provides some puzzles. Many ancient scripts, though written with the right hand, went right to left, as Arabic and Hebrew do today; When such scripts are written with pen or brush and ink, how does the writer see what he is doing and avoid smudging his work? More curious: both Greek and Latin were written right-to,-left in their archaic period, then for a short time alternately in both directions, like a man ploughing a field (boustrephedon), and finally from left to right, the basis from which cursive scripts were evolved. A separate but related question, is how the reading mechanism (eye and brain) adapted to these changes.

For a left-hander, the natural way to write is in reverse, i.e. in mirror image. One of the tribe, Leonardo da Vinci employed this device in his note-books to preserve secrecy (Figure 1). The writing-masters Palatino and Clement Perret show examples of mirror writing in their manuals.

One tends to forget that the practice was not unusual. Right-handed engravers had to know how to write in reverse. Alois Senefelder opened his engaging account of how he discovered the lithographic process in 1798 thus: 'I had just succeeded in my little laboratory in polishing a stone plate, which I intended to cover with etching ground in order to continue my exercises in writing backwards, when my mother entered the room and desired me to write a bill for the washer-woman, who was waiting for the linen. . . .'

Nevertheless it is advisable not to become so obsessed with mirror script that you start dreaming about it: for Artemidorus in his Oneirocritica, the most celebrated dream book of antiquity, warns (Book III, 25):

'Writing backwards indicates that the dreamer will do something cunning and that he will take advantage of some-one and harm him through deceit and trickery. But frequently it means that one will become an adulterer and father bastards in secret. I know of one man who wrote humorous songs after this dream'.

Obviously, left-handed writers have no option but to push the pen from left to right - an unnatural vice if ever there was one. I normally tilt the paper and keep the left elbow somewhat away from the body so that it can move to the right as required. Fortunately we have more professional guidance from two left-handed teachers, who contributed articles to the JOURNAL several years ago, Miss Anna Hornby (No 49, Autumn 1965) and Miss Prue Wallis Myers (No 41, Winter 1964). Both write the italic hand superbly, and the latter has taught herself to use the right hand as well.