Articles on Left-handedness

These have been provided as a reference to a number of questions posted periodically in the newsgroup alt.lefthanded.

If is also worth looking out for "Frequently Asked Questions for the Left-Handed Population" posted periodically to alt.lefthanded and the general newsgroups alt.answers and news.answers. It is also available via anonymous ftp from:

Also, you can find a URL version on the World Wide Web at:

Four million Britains can't be right by Alex Valentine

published about 1978, Observer ?

Four million people in Britain have something in common with Jack the Ripper. He was one of an unfortunate minority-the left-handed.

Unfortunate, because not only are they regarded as "odd" and "different" but the words that mean "left" all have unpleasant connotations.

The French word gauche also means clumsy, and the Latin sinister even has tones of evil.

Think too of the nicknames which are always given to the left-handers. They vary in different parts of the country but "cock-handed," "bang-handed," "cam-handed," "dolly-pawed," "cuddie-wifted" or just plain "squippy" all come to the same thing -that somehow or other all is not right with the left.

If it were just mild abuse it might not be so bad - the fact is that it's dammed difficult being a left-hander.

If youare left-handed you will have thought about the problem often enough. If not, you've probably given it a passing thought, and lightheartedly dismissed the difficulties.' But the three questions that should be asked are:

  1. Why are people left-handed ?
  2. Just how difficult is it to be left-handed ?
  3. Can anything be done to make the left-handedness easier ?

The obvious and logical answer of the left-hander to the first question is "why not-why should it be a right-hander's world?"

And there is no real answer to that. It is certain that the majority of the world is right-handed, but beyond that there is only conjecture, theory, pseudo-science and folklore.

Some so-called experts say that it's because the brain is divided into two parts which control the opposite sides of the body-the left-hand part of the brain controls the right side of the body and the other way round.

Normally, this argument goes, the dominant part of the brain is on the left, therefore it controls the right-and that is supposed to explain why most people are right-handed.

Unfortunately for these theorists, studies of left-handed people do not show their brains have developed in any different way.

Another school of thought argues that it's all to do with the way in which the body is built. If you divide the human body in two from head to toe you will find that the right-hand side weights more than the left (there being more weight of liver and lungs on the right). So, says this theory, human beings tend to counter-balance their weight on the left foot, leaving the right foot and the right hand free for action.

Again that might be fine if there were any evidence that the bodies of left-handed people are any different from the rest. And there isn't.

The next guess is whether or not it's hereditary. This is now largely discredited, and since my right-handed wife and my right-handed self have three left-handed children, I'm not really surprised.

This in turn raises the question of whether or not left-handed children tend to copy each other, if not their parents. Again, it's inconclusive - for instance, of the Dionne Quintuplets, only one of the five was a left-handed.

By now it's getting into the realm of old wives' tales. It depends on which breast the baby was mainly fed on …which arm it was carried about. . . whether it was bathed in a bath where the water ran out from left to right or right to left. . . .

Most left-handers have long since given up trying to find out. What they are more concerned with is the fact that they live in a right-handed world.

True, schools have now stopped forcing left-handed children to write with their other hand. Educational authorities have realised that this is likely to introduce nervous tensions into children (for instance, it is now, believed that the late King George VI suffered from a stammer because a tough governess at Buckingham Palace forced him to change his writing hand).

THE DIFFICULTY of writing with the left hand is obvious- the writing hand coves up what the person has written, and, before the days of the ball-point pen, smudged all the work.

But there are other less obvious handicaps that the left-hander has to fight against-the fact that potato peelers usually only have their cutting blades placed for right-handers, that irons and ironing boards are designed in such a way that when used by a left-hander the flex from the iron hangs over the work.

Knitting patterns are basically designed for right-handers, so are cork-screws and clockwork mechanisms- remember, for a left-handed person the natural motion is to turn the hand anti-clockwise.

But the left-handers are beginning to unite. in Britain they now have their own association run by Michael Barsley, a television producer and broadcaster, who has recently had his "Left Handed Book" published as a paperback by Pan.

The Left Handers' Association is agitating for legislation to recognise their difficulties, and for designers to think about them. They point out that even that most modern of all inventions-the computer-was designed for right-handed people.

They are also trying to get people to think of them as people, with certain handicaps which should be recognised without either ridicule or contempt.

It is, they point out, just a matter of some thought and consideration. There is no point in shouting at a left-handed child because it cannot copy the actions of a right-handed person who is demonstrating how to knit or tie a bow. The thing is to remember that the left-handed child uses opposite hands, so why not face the child and act as a "mirror" so that the child copies what it sees?

And, if you have a left-handed guest, why not put him or her (quietly and without making a big thing of it) at a left-handed corner of the table so that their elbow won't be jogged whilst they are holding a cup or glass?

Already, just off London's Carnaby Street, there's a special shop for left-'handers which has items like sauce-pans with lips that pour on either side, potato peelers with blades on both sides, left-handed scissors, left-handed ironing boards, and even left-handed playing cards.

It might be some consolation to left-handers to know that as well as Jack the Ripper they include such people as Leonardo da Vincl, Charlie Chaplin, Paul McCartney, Danny Kaye, Terence Stamp, Kim Novak, Denis Compton, Gary Sobers, Ann Haydon Jones and Rod Laver.

Indeed, the left-handers of the world ara turning up as one in every tenth person, and if you think in terms of any single race, colour or creed, who else makes up such a group ?

Maybe "Cack-handers of the World, Unite!" is not exactly the sort of slogan to set the world on fire, but to anyone who is left-handed in a right-handed world it's heavy propaganda.

Some famous left-handers past and present.

Ann Haydon Jones, Ronald Searle, William Rushton, Sir Compton Mackenzie, Charlie Chaplin, Peter Scott, Paul McCartney, Kim Novak, Harpo Marx, Mandy Rice-Davies, Benjamin Fraklin, Garfield Sobers, Babe Ruth, Jessie Matthews, Danny Kaye.

Left-handers shopping guide

from Anything Left Handed Ltd., 57 Brewer St London W1 (0171 437 3910) {last contacted 27th May 1997}

On Hand-writing styles

The direction of flow of a left-hander writing is different to that of a right-hander, although each group shows different behaviour.

Traditional Chinese writing is in columns, right to left column with the bind of a closed book on the right showing it's cover (back to front according to English). Modern Chinese is written left to right horizontally. The left-handed taboo is still strong in China, and comments about using chop sticks left handed and how awkward it looks etc.!

Arabic, Urdu and Persian are all written right to left (same script). It has been argued that this is the correct way for right handers to write.

"From the Left Handers newsletter No6 March 1970 organised by Mr Michael Barsley"

Mr Sami Harmarneh, a famous Arabic scholar and Head of the Division of Medical Sciences at the Smithsonian Institution, Washington DC sent the following notes to Mr Heinz Nrodon, of New Doctor, who recently published one of my articles on left-handedness.

"Left-handedness is less encountered in the Middle East than in England or the US. Although there are no official statistics available it seems to me that the percentage is less than 1%. It is also greatly discouraged... I think writing from right to left as is the case in Arabic and Hebrew makes it easier to use the right hand. (This I would question, since the movement of the hand and arm is towards the body, a constriction we left-handers feel). A friend in Beirut writes Arabic in the right hand whilst using his left hand for writing English and French. Very interesting case!" Dr. Hamarneh adds: "I do not have any examples to give relative to dyslexia; however, I know of one case wherein a six-year-old child was taught English and Arabic, and in one instance, in writing his name, he wrote it backwards. He mixed the Arabic approach with the English." On the other hand, as it were, three years ago I meet the left-handed Libyan Director of Culture and Tourism, who insisted that all Arabs should write left-handed! I am dealing with handwriting in detail in my next book, but would meanwhile welcome any further opinions on this subject."

A Right Sinister Lot Are We Left-Handers Who,
one day, may be a majority

by John Austin, Radio Times ? Date unknown

If you're cack-handed, coochy-pawed, kefty, keggy, wacky or llaw bwt and look like a praying mantis when you write, then you are left-handed - an unshifted sinistral. And you probably have much in common with Kenneth Haigh, star of Man at the Top...

KENNETH HAIGH'S performance when slicing a loaf of bread should be granted an "X" certificate. Everybody agrees.

It seems impossible that Haigh, star of Man at the Top, is ever going to cut his round of toast without first severing the finger-tips of his right hand, and those in the kitchen cringe in anticipation as the blade cuts swiftly deeper.

"Frightens the life out of them," says Haigh cheerfully. "You should see their faces."

I know how he feels. Every time I make out a cheque to the landlord of my local pub, with the book sloped at an acute angle and my hand sort of upside-down, like a praying mantis, those nearby, watch, mouths agape, and mutter: "His mother must have been frightened by a Chinaman," or something similar.

It is something all we left-handers learn to accept with amused tolerance. But we arc also much maligned.

Sinistrals, the scientist call us. So, from the start, we are bracketed with all things unpleasant, nasty and evil. In contrast the other lot are dextrals, all neat, clever, mentally adroit and dextrous right-handers.

They are the goodies and we the baddies, and it seems that things are the same wherever poor southpaws go. In France, for instance, we are gauche (awkward or clumsy); in Italy mancini (crooked or maimed); in Portugal canhoto (weak and mischievous); in Spain zurdo (the wrong way), and even aboard a gipsy caravan there is no escape. In Romany it is bongo, meaning crooked or evil, and our own home-bred word "left" comes from Middle-English and means "weak".

A bleak prospect, and Haigh, pouring wine with his left hand and smoking a cigar with his right, was wondering why a left-handed compliment should be regarded as an insult.

"Our compliments are as good as their."

Then there are all those funny names they call us - coochy-pawed, click-handed, key-nieved, dolly-pawed, gallock-handed, cack-handed, gawky-handed, keggy, wacky, scrammy, kefty, keeky-fisted, flug-handed, kitty-wesy, Mollie-dooker.

There are 88 ways of saying "left-handed" according to the Dialect and Folk Studies Institute of Leeds University, who are to produce a dialect atlas of Britain in three years' time. One that they have missed out originates, I believe, from the Rhondda Valley where I, and my ilk, were known as llaw bwt, which is a kindly way of saying a man is funny-handed.

The doctors, too, are at us. The Royal College of General Practitioners' journal announced, earlier this year, that doctors are to conduct a survey to discover whether the traditionally left-handed Kerr and Carr families are still southpaw. Apparently, "Carr-handed," "Kerr-handed" and "Carry-handed" are still in the vernacular to describe you know what, and the name is said to derive from the Gaelic caerr, meaning "awkward."

The Kerrs, very sensibly, built Scottish castles in which the spiral staircases gave great advantage to left-handed swordsmen.

Other busy doctors, as Wisconsin University in American, interviewed numerous university woman of the district, and found out that seven out of 10 preferred as left-handed squeeze, cuddle, or whatever. This, say the doctors, is due to the caveman instinct, as primitive man kept his club in his right hand while courting, to ward off wild beasts and rival suitors, and was therefore forced to tickle his fancy with his left.

However, the theory does not seem to fit in with expert finds that the majority of Stone Age tools found were for the left-handed, or the fact somebody else found out that more than half the population was southpaw in the Bronze Age.

Haigh, is like me, an unshifted sinistral, someone who has either not been forced to change hands, or has resisted any attempts to make him change. He dimly remembers the nuns who taught him trying to switch his pen from an inky left hand to a reluctant right, but they probably wilted under the stubborn glare which he keeps to this day.

The 40-year-old son of a Yorkshire miner, he is also politically Left.

"I had to be," he explains. "Otherwise, my father would have given me a right-hander.

"One thing I remember clearly as a small boy, is laying the table for my mother. It didn't save her any time, because I always laid for left-handed people and she had to follow on behind me switching the knives and forks around."

It is true, he says, that left-handed cricketers are very good, and he had often heard that cack-handed babies abandoned near the Yorkshire cricket grounds of Headingly and Bramall Lane were immediately taken to the nets.

He wondered whether primates were predominantly right-handed. The man I rang at the zoo said he didn't have time to look it up, but as far as he knew they grabbed their food with whichever hand they weren't scratching with.

I could tell him, though, that lobsters are left-clawed, and that badgers, parrots, wolves and bears are also sinistrals. Also favouring the left: Prince Charles, Charlie Chaplin, Danny Kaye, Rod Laver, Tony Roche, Ann Haydon-Jones, Nye Bevan, Julius Caesar, Leonardo da Vinci, Picasso, Rex Harrison, Edward III, George VI, Kim Novak and, unfortunately, Jack the Ripper.

Japanese wartime chief, General Tojo, got his doctor to put an "X" on his chest, over his heart, when he decided to shoot himself, then missed. This, said his wife, was because he was left-handed. The general was not a credit to us.

Lewis Carroll, however, rose to brilliance, though while normally left-handed he was forced to write with his right. The resulting frustration probably produced the stammer which, it is claimed, is often typical of shifted sinistals.

Haigh and I mused over the facts: men are more likely to be left-handed than women ("probably because they do more courting," says Haigh). Left-handedness is more prevalent among twins. If you are cooky-pawed you are likely to be cooky-footed as well, and you will probably see better with your scammy eye and hear better with your gallock ear.

Babies, we leaned, are born ambidextrous, and 34 out of every 100 would become naturally llaw bwt if allowed to develop without interfernece. However, many are coerced by treacherous parents and teachers, who push things into their tiny right hands though they may plead for rusks with their left.

Anything to fit the poor little blighters into a right-handed world where hockey sticks, tin openers, scissors, rifles and cheque books with stubs on the left will be no problem to them.

Despite this, statisticians have worked out that there are at least 200 million left-handers in the world out of a population of over 3,750 million, and more than five million of us (which seems a lot) live in Britain.

Miltitant southpaw leaders have, from time to time, arisen, forming associations and attempted to pressure people who make turnstiles into providing coin slots on the left, as well as the right. As a result of their efforts it is possible, if you look far enough, to buy left-handed golf clubs, saxophones, pencil sharpeners, and men's shirts which button the other way around. Or, so I'm told.

Kenneth Haigh is at present campaigning for a left-handed grapefruit-slicer, because the one he has got now is driving him potty. Like most sinistrals, he is more ambidextrous than most dextrals.

There may be great gnashing of teeth in years to come as the proportion of left-handers being born is steadily increasing, and the scientists don't know why. One day, when I'm long gone, we will again be a majority.

Come the revolution, and all right-handers will be known, as grotty-fingered, or bungy-mitted; humorous foremen will send green apprentices to fetch right-handed spanners, and so on.

On the other hand...

Horizon - Mystery of the Left Hand Monday 9:30 BBC2 (from Radio times 2-8 February 1985)

Is there any advantage in being left-handed? Ambidextrous Alan Bestic looks at a scientific theory.

IN YEARS to come students of architecture gazing at the dramatic Lloyd's headquarters now nearing completion in London may tell each of that it was designed by the Richard Rogers Partnership. They will be unlikely to add that two of the three partners were left-handed. Professor Norman Geschwind, head of Harvard University's neurology department until his death recently, would have seized on the point. One of his conclusions from a deep study of left-handed people, examined in Horizon, was that many had the qualities which made good architects.

He based much of his work on the fact that people are left-handed because the right hemisheres of their brains arc dominant. Right-handers - roughly nine out of ten of us - have more highly developed left hemisheres.The balance, he claimed, is determined in the womb by the level at the male sex hormone, testosterone, the foetus's sensitivity to it or both.

Left-handers were likely to be good architects, he maintained, because the right hemisphere of the brain controls spatia skills, the ability to think in three-dimensional terms. For reasons less clear, but probably related to the dominance of the right side of the brain, they also may be good at computer-programming and tennis.

Almost half the world's leading tennis players are left-handed.

Disadvantages, however, out-weigh those plus factors. The left hemisphere governs the ability to learn languages. So left-handers are inclined to be less able linguists. And they may find more basic skills difficult to acquire. According to Professsor Geschwind, those who stammer, have difficulty learning to read or write or who are dyslexic outnumber by ten to one right-handers with these problems.

His studies have shown, too, that twice as many left-handers suffer from migraine, allergies and other ailments caused by immune system disorders, though here the reasons are more complex. Testosterone influences the thymus gland which teaches white blood cells to fight external enemies when they attack the body, causing disease. A high level of testosterone can interfere with this education, so white cells may allow enemies through as well as attacking friends in the body.

Boys, he maintained, are more likely than girls to be left-handed because they manufacture large quantities of testosterone while in the womb - much more than in childhood and almost as much as in adolescence. girls in the womb do not produce it and, left to them-selves, would never be left-handed. Their mothers, however, produce it as a by-product of female hormones, but the level is low. So there are fewer left-handed girls.

John Young, one of the left-handed partners in the Richard Rogers Partnership, respects Professor Geschwind's impeccable academic qualifications. He does not believe, however, that being left-handed has influenced his life.

He holds a tennis racket in his left hand, it is true, but plays badly. He does not suffer from allergies, migraine or any other ailment related to immune system disorders. He had no difficulty learning to read or write. And certainly he is poor linguist. When he went to work in Paris some years ago he found that his almost forgotten A-level French flowered into fluency with remarkable speed.

Canny Professor Geschwind, of course, would have asked what he was doing in Paris and would not have been surprised to learn that John Young was deeply involved with the construction of the world-renowned Pompidou Centre.

Could it be totally coincidental, he would have asked, that the same left-handed architect was even more deeply involved in the design of the Lloyd's headquarters? And here John Young edges a little closer to the professor's belief that left-handed people have an enhanced ability to think in three dimensions.

The Lloyd's design, he says, certainly posed three-dimensional puzzles. The partnership solved them by turning the building inside out, putting the services - lifts, stairs, toilets and heating, telephone and electricity systems - outside, thus increasing the actual space for working. Because they wanted as much natural light as possible, they folded their structure round a central space, creating a building with a glass-capped hole in the middle, so to speak, so that light came from two sources. Professor Geschwind would have claimed with justification that it would be difficult to imagine an architectural concept more tri-dimensional than that.


The GFG home page

Last updated 23rd April 1999