A Sinister Life

I have spent a lifetime as a lefty in a right-handed world. Left-handedness appears naturally in about ten percent of the population across cultures and across time. The minority status of lefties has resulted in several negative descriptors. In Latin, right and left are dextra and sinistra. The Latin word for right gives us dexterity, and the word for left yields sinister. In French, left is gauche which we incorporated into English with a meaning of awkward or lacking in certain skills.

In my lifetime left-handedness has been suppressed by parents or teachers or at least made difficult. Regardless, a right hand dominated world has existed for eons. Cave Paintings dating back tens of thousands of years depict hunters brandishing their spears in the right hand. Going back hundreds of thousands of years, cut marks on bones from sites of human habitation show that the bone was held in the left hand and cut with the more “dexterous” right hand.

As longs as humans have been, well human, there is evidence of dominant right-handedness. Stone tools have been in use for over two million years. Examination of artifacts of tool preparation show handedness. The simplest of tools, a sharp flake of stone used for cutting is produced by striking one stone, the hammerstone, against another to chip off flakes. Archaic Hammerstones show chip marks that indicate the users were predominantly right-handed.

There are advantages and disadvantages to lefties. In both team and individual sports, lefties have an advantage because opponents have less experience playing against left-handers. On the tennis court and even more importantly at table tennis, slams from lefties come from the opposite side. The football spirals out of a left-handed quarterback in the opposite direction of the more common right-hander. Receivers who practice with left-handed quarterbacks have an advantage over defenders trying to intercept a ball spinning in a direction they aren’t used to. Curveballs from left-handed baseball pitchers break in the opposite direction.

Ah, but we aren’t all professional ball players, and that’s where the advantages may end. The disadvantages begin early in life. Every left-handed student knows the problems. The desks are wrong, the binders are wrong, scissors are wrong and on and on. Writing can be particularly troublesome for left-handed children if teachers aren’t sensitive. Many lefties end up with the “hooked” hand where the wrist is twisted clockwise and the grip of the pencil is close to the lead. This uncomfortable style can result in a certain degree of fatigue and even cramping.

More modern devices are no better: the computer mouse and numeric keypad are for the righty. Game controllers? Right-handed of course. Watch faces and even the clasps on bike helmets are right-handed.

More serious trouble occurs when more advanced tools, especially power tools, come into play. The more complex the tool, the greater the danger. Tools and all their safety features are designed for the majority. And safety is a big issue. There are more power tool injuries among lefties compared to righties. Speaking from personal experience, I have cut, bruised, or broken body parts from the use of right-handed tools. Or is it that I’m just gauche?

Dr. Bob Allen, Ph.D., is Emeritus Professor of Chemistry at Arkansas Tech University.

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