Sunday, 29 April 2007

All That's Left

I promised (or should I say threatened) in a previous post that I would discuss the word sinister and it is certainly a word that merits consideration. Anyone who has studied basic Italian will know that the Italian word 'sinistra' means 'left' and that belies the Latin origins of the word. Sinister, meaning 'giving the impression that something harmful or evil is happening or will happen' appeared with its current meaning in 'late Middle English' but it came from the Old French word 'sinistre' and the Latin word before it 'sinister' and as I hinted, it simply meant 'left', as in the direction.

The word took on its modern meaning in the Middle Ages and came about from the idea that the left side was unlucky and it is an idea that pervaded most cultures. When you spill salt you throw it with your right hand over your left shoulder and that came from the belief that you would blind the devil who perched there. There is also the superstition that if one gazes too long in the mirror that the Devil will appear, again on your left shoulder. In some different Arab cultures the left hand is the unclean hand and its use is forbidden for many practices. Also, let us not forget that in the Bible that God's favourites sit on his right hand, not his left.

In case there are any right-wing people out there who'd like to use this to deride your left-wing antagonists then I hate to disappoint but the left/right division in politics has a different etymology. It dates back to the French Revolution where the more liberal parliamentarians sat on the left side of the assembly chamber and the conservative members sat on the right; a tradition I understand which is still upheld in the French National Assembly. Whilst I'm on the Subject of French politics, vote Ségolène Royal on the 6th of May.


gary thomson said...

Good point about where the derivation of the political use of the term left comes from.