Living Left-handed is now out of print. Chapter 1 has been reproduced here for you to read.




pub. Bloomsbury Publishing






World trends



There are estimated to be two hundred million left-handers in the world: nine million in the United Kingdom, over seven million in Italy, five million in Japan, thirty million in the United States of America, and forty-eight million throughout Europe. Figures vary from ten to twenty per cent of the population and are difficult to obtain because an official census of sinistral people has never been carried out in any country.

            In 1886, left-handers made up 70 per cent of the Punjabi population, in 1932, nearly 8 per cent in Switzerland, only 3.8 per cent in Stuttgart and 4.6 per cent in Berlin. (By 1974, the overall German statistics had strangely reduced to 0.44 per cent.) In 1933 there were 10 per cent in Palestine, and in 1953, 5.5 per cent in Scotland. In France in 1962, 11 per cent of men were left-handed and 9 per cent of women. In 1983, there were 11 per cent in Japan, and in the UK in 1985, one survey among 15- to 65-year-olds produced 30.7 per cent left-handers. In 1921, 11.9 per cent were found in special schools and 18.2 per cent among ‘mental defectives’.

            American surveys range from 2 per cent in New York in 1911 to 4 per cent in Ohio in 1930 and 6.4 per cent in Detroit in 1941. Nationwide, figures varied from 1 to 29 per cent in 1927 to 11 per cent in 1960. In 1952, the United States Army revealed that left-handers made up 8.6 per cent of recruits. Of them, 7.8 per cent were passes and 9.7 per cent were failures.

            Even though these figures are so disparate, to include them in future population censuses, as has been suggested, would probably create even more confusion. Most statistics are gathered by researchers from their work with schoolchildren. They do not always take into account the adult population but are thought to be a fair indication of statistical trends.

            But because of the various degrees of laterality, and the fact that some people may be more right- or left-handed than they think, a question on an official Census form to determine laterality percentages would probably produce totally misleading results and is not to be recommended. The only true record would be produced by laterality testing, which ideally should be done at various stages of a child’s development.

The famous and the infamous


Despite their ‘sinister’ origins, a high percentage of left-handers have hit the headlines over the years. The first noted left-hander was Mucius Scaevola, a hero of Roman legend, who was ordered to be burnt alive after an assassination attempt on Porsenna, the King of Etruria. But he won the King’s favour and pardon by fearlessly holding his right hand in the fire. Thereafter, he was known as ‘left-handed Mucius’.

            Since then, the line of left-handers has passed down through Alexander the Great, Charlemagne, the Emperor Tiberius, Lord Nelson (for whom there was no alternative) and Joan of Arc (whose portrait in the copy of her trial, now in the National Archives in Paris, reveals her holding her sword in her left hand), to one-third of all United States’ Presidents since 1945, including Harry Truman, Gerald Ford, Ronald Reagan (who was changed) and George Bush (Snr).

            Statesman and philosopher, Benjamin Franklin, was a left-hander who, in addition to helping frame the American Constitution, found a moment to pen an appeal for the left in the form of ‘A Petition to Those Who Have the Superintendency of Education’:

            ‘There are twin sisters of us; and the eyes of man do not more resemble, nor are capable of being on better terms with each other than my sister and myself, were it not for the partiality of our parents, who made the most injurious distinction between us.

            ‘From my infancy I have been led to consider my sister as a being of more educated rank. I was suffered to grow up without the least instruction, while nothing was spared in her education. She had masters to teach her writing, drawing, music and other accomplishments, but if by chance I touched a pencil, a pen or a needle I was bitterly rebuked; and more than once I have been beaten for being awkward, and wanting a graceful manner…

            ‘Must not the regret of our parents be excessive, at having placed so great a difference between sisters who are so perfectly equal? Alas! We must perish from distress; for it would not be in my power even to scrawl a suppliant petition for relief…

            ‘Condescend, sir, to make my parents sensible of the injustice of an exclusive tenderness, and of the necessity of distributing their care and affection among all their children equally. I am, with profound respect, Sirs,

‘Your obedient servant,


            In the UK, King George VI was a noted changed left-hander and Queen Victoria was ambidextrous.

            Prince Charles experienced an enforced change to the left when he broke the humerus in his upper right arm after a fall on the polo field in June, 1990. Much concern was shown for the heir to the British throne when complications set in after the two breaks, above his elbow, were set in plaster at a cottage hospital in Cirencester.

            A month later, HRH was still in pain, there was little sign of healing and a holiday in Majorca did not help. The Queen’s Medical Centre, Nottingham, recommended a three-hour operation involving a hip bone graft, which took place at the end of August.

            Although his sporting life was at stake, he was expected to resume the use of his right hand eventually. In the meantime, the Prince switched sides and was reported as having ‘…perfected a scratchy signature…’ and the ability to paint, sketch and shake hands with his South Paw. ‘Life on the left will never be good enough for Prince Charles,” proclaimed the Daily Mail, whose concern was whether he would ever be able to play polo again.

            Of present-day politicians, only the Shadow Foreign Secretary, the Rt Hon Gerald Kaufman and the Rt Hon Lord Jenkins of Hillhead have admitted to being ‘of the left’, while the right wing keep their left-handed leanings to themselves.

            In the world of entertainment, creative left-handers abound. Among them are George Burns, Charles Chaplin, Bernie Clifton, Michael Crawford, Leslie Crowther, Robert De Niro, Richard Dreyfuss, W. C. Fields, Uri Geller, Rex Harrison, Rock Hudson, Derek Jameson, Danny Kaye, Michael Landon, Marcel Marceau, Harpo Marx, Anthony Newley, Ryan O’Neal, Robert Redford, Paul Shane, Telly Savalas, Rod Steiger, Dick Van Dyke. Female left-handers in the entertainment business include Carol Barnes, Jean Boht, Carol Burnett, Greta Garbo, Judy Garland, Betty Grable, Olivia de Havilland, Goldie Hawn, Hope Lange, Shirley Maclaine, Marilyn Monroe, Kim Novak, Su Pollard, Esther Rantzen and Eva Marie Saint.

            Composers and musicians include C.P.E. Bach, Benjamin Britten, Bob Geldof, Jimi Hendrix, Paul McCartney, Cole Porter, Prokofiev and Ringo Starr. Fashion designer Zandra Rhodes is left-handed, as are cartoonists Calman and Ronald Searle, and artists Albrecht Durer, Hans Holbein, Paul Klee, Edwin Landseer and Pablo Picasso. Both Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci were ambidextrous.

            They are prolific, too, in the world of sport, boasting such famous names as Babe Ruth, John Barnes, Bjorn Borg, Bob Charles (golf only), Brian Close, ‘Little Mo’ Connolly, Jimmy Connors, Mark Cox, Jaroslav Drobny, Guy Forget, Neale Fraser, Sara Gomer, David Gower, Herol Graham, Marvin Hagler, Ben Hogan (golf right), Ann Jones, Bill Knight, Rod Laver, Henri Leconte, John McEnroe, Martina Navratilova, Manuel Orantes, Tony Roche, Gary Sobers, Mark Spitz, Roscoe Tanner, Roger Taylor, Guillermo Vilas and Mark Woodforde.

            Other prominent left-handers include Albert Einstein, Herbert Hoover, Nelson Rockefeller, Billy the Kid, the Boston Strangler, the Black Panther and Jack the Ripper.

            Today’s famous left-handers might well have joined fellow sinistral Joan at the stake had they been born in earlier centuries, for the left-handed minority have endured a traditionally bad press throughout the ages. To discover why, we must delve back into history.

Animal connections

Experiments with animals have revealed little in relation to the origins of handedness for animals have paws, not hands, which have superior values and uses for humans, in particular dexterity. And animals appear to have no particular preference for either paw. Some researchers have noted such peculiarities as the elephant digging roots more with the right tusk, dogs being consistent in which hind leg they raise when urinating, saddle horses trained to canter off on the right foot, which seems to create problems for some, the discovery of variable hand preferences in some monkeys, the predominant right-sidedness in rats and a divided preference in squirrels and cows.

            The results indicate that there are no special leanings to any one side over the other. Animals, on the whole, tend to be ambilateral, although they can be trained to the specific use of one particular side and a minority are one-sided, by chance.

Prehistoric evidence

‘Every man did what was right in his own eyes. Some handled their tools and drew with the left hand. A larger number used the right hand, but as yet no rule prevailed. In this, as in certain other respects, the arts and habits of that period belonged to a chapter in the infancy of the race, when the law of dexterity, as well as other laws, begot by habit, convenience or more prescriptive conventionality, had not yet found their place in that unwritten code to which a prompter obedience is rendered than to the most absolute of royal or imperial decrees.’ Sir Daniel Wilson, The Prehistoric Man, 1876.


Archaeologists, unearthing Stone Age relics from between 100,000 years ago and 4,000 BC, have found that aboriginal man had no particular hand preferences. Neolithic man’s flint tools were honed for left and right use in equal measure. In the Paleolithic era, humans used whichever hand suited them best. Some used tools and drew with their left hand and an equal number seem to have used their right hand.

            In 1890, hand-held stonescrapers unearthed in France and Switzerland had double edges. Around 56 per cent of them were honed for left-handed use. In north Surrey, Neolithic flint pounders, awls and borers were found to be made equally for right and left-handed use, indicating ambidexterity. Stone implements, arrow blades and spearheads left by North American Indian aborigines in the USA clearly revealed a higher left-handed bias than in later eras. Thirty-three per cent of the rock drawings were made by left-handers.

            Other anthropological findings at the turn of the century revealed a higher percentage of left-handed artists than we find in today’s society and a more equal distribution of hand preference. Primitive Australians, Africans, Hottentots, Bushmen, Bantus and Pygmies were all found to favour the left hand.

            Anthropologist, Paul Sarasin (1856-1929), found some wedge-shaped stones and hatchets in Moustier, France, sharpened on the left and others on the right side, indicating an equal number of left- and right-handers in the Stone Age and this was echoed in other areas. It seems to have been during the Bronze Age that the preference for right-handedness occurred, revealed by the cutting edges of tools and the sickle, made for right-handers only, a preference which has persisted down the ages.

Cultural significance and social pressure

As man’s implements became progressively more sophisticated, from stone to bronze to iron, society’s cultural habits advanced from basic hunting, fishing and farming. Stone Age tools were sufficiently simple and primitive to afford use by either hand with no problem. Bronze Age tools, however, were more advanced and could not be switched to either hand. The maker decided on its sidedness, not the user, who also had to pass it down through generations of descendants who were obliged to use that hand. But it meant that the user could develop special strengths on one side of his body, making for more speed and efficiency on that side.

            Children have their skills passed on to them by the adults in society, who have already formed their own hand preference and the tradition is passed on, by social pressure. Right-handedness, or dextrality, became adopted as part of man’s culture and passed into the social code, taking on religious, moral and magical significance. Left-handedness became inconvenient and eventually virtually taboo, ostensibly so as not to hinder the advancement of civilisation. As the right gained ground on all fronts, inevitably, the left began to decline in acceptability, becoming associated with the more negative aspects of abnormality, darkness and wickedness.

            Some cultures reacted in quite extreme ways. In Albania, left-handedness is said to be banned. The Indonesians bind their children’s left arms to their sides to prevent use. The Kaffirs scald and bury their sinistrals’ left hands in the hot sand. Zulu children are also banned from using their left hands. In Arab countries, the left, or ‘unclean hand’, has traditionally been used for personal hygiene (likewise among Hindus), while the right hand is used for eating. The origin of the phrase, ‘to give one’s right hand’ for something, relates to the custom of cutting off a thief’s right hand, thereby rendering him useless, for the left is not socially acceptable. Today’s more educated Arabs have a more relaxed attitude towards left-handedness, although in India the taboo still persists. Rural Japanese women are likely to be divorced if caught using their left hands. African women from certain tribes of the Niger river are not allowed to cook with their left hand. In the Maori language, the right side denotes the male (strong, virile and good) side, while the left side denotes the female and everything bad. Ironically, although there are more left-handed men than women in the world, the left side in most cultures is always correlated with women – in Buddhism, Yin, the weak side and the weaker sex – and the right, strong, Yang, with men. Only the American Zuni Indians and the Chinese come out in favour of the left. When I lived in Paris, the French constantly noted my left-handedness, with loud exclamations, as though I was some kind of phenomenon. It does not appear to be encouraged there, nor in Germany, although left-handed shops in both countries do exist. A shop has been in existence in London for over 20 years and each American state has at least one left-handed store. In Juniata College, Darby, Pennsylvania, a special scholarship is exclusively reserved for left-handers.

Language of left and right

‘The stranger greets thy hand with proffered left? Accept not: ‘tis of loyalty bereft. Left-handed friends are underhanded foes; True openness a swordless right hand shows.’ Harvey, Sheep in Wolves’ Clothing, 1.98.


To reinforce the negative concept of left-handedness and the left side, the language of the left reflects the cultural background, its progress and advancement among the different societies. Abram Blau in The Master Hand lists the right as ‘permanence, force, power, strength, grace, dexterity, dispatch, godliness, rectitude, truth, goodness, and sanctity.’ In direct contrast, the left represents, ‘the opposite, the reverse, the lack, the negation of all the traits and characteristics attributed to the right hand.’

            The word ‘right’ comes from the Latin rectus meaning straight, erect and just, a position of honour. The word for left, sinister, from the Latin for left, denotes ‘a bad omen, inauspicious, evil, awkward, wrong, perverse, improper, unlucky, unfavourable, and bad.’ In Latin and Greek, the left hand was the shield hand or laeva, or the pocket hand, sinister deriving from the word sinus or pocket of the toga. Even the Anglo-Saxon word for left, lyft, means weak or broken, the left arm being the weak arm, while right means straight, erect or just. In Germany, left is licht or leicht, meaning light or fragile.

            We have even invented phrases to reinforce these emotions, such as ‘right-hand man’ (coined during the Middle Ages when the King’s favourite was seated on his right), ‘left-handed friend’, ‘two left feet’, ‘left behind’ but ‘right behind one’ and ‘right on’. We talk of left-handed marriages, compliments and oaths. The bar sinister was reluctantly bestowed on the bastard son, an unlucky state of affairs for any noble family. In politics, we inherited the French custom of labelling ‘right wingers’ (nobles) and the ‘left wing’ (pre-revolutionary capitalists). The propaganda machine has worked well over the centuries in most countries to indoctrinate the people with an abhorrence of the left.

            Today, we have inherited a host of derogatory nicknames, most of them indigenous to individual areas. These range from ‘Molly-dooker’ (woman-handed) in Australia to ‘cack-handed’ (from the French ‘caca’ for excrement) in England.

            ‘…it definitely influenced my personality – I was aggressive – I hated being called “cack-handed Clara”’, commented one woman on her left-handedness. In Scotland, we are ‘Corrie-pawed’, in Cornwall ‘Clicky-handed’, in the West Midlands ‘Keggy-handed’, in Lancashire ‘Kay-fisted’, in the North of England ‘Cuddy-wifters’ and in the South, ‘Skivvy-handed’. The list goes on.


Biblical discrimination

Evil and Good are God’s Right Hand and Left.’ Philip James Bailey, Festus, Proem.


In general terms, the Bible does little for the left, offering at least 100 references in favour of the right and around 25 references unfavourable to the left. These are not all aimed at the left hand but the left side. ‘Then he will say to those on his left, ‘”Away from me, you that are under God’s curse! Away to the eternal fire which has been prepared for the Devil and his angels!” (Matthew, 25:41). This does not necessarily denote that all left-handers are cursed.

            Left-handed Ehud, of the tribe of Benjamin (which seems to have boasted quite a few left-handers), fared better than most when he stabbed King Eglon of Moab with a dagger he had secreted on his right thigh, in order to help save the children of Israel. But Biblical allusions to the good right and the bad left abound, throughout the Old and New Testaments. The Talmud tells us: ‘Let your left hand turn away what your right hand attracts.’ Sotua, 47.

            But it was the goat (or scapegoat) which was chosen to represent the dark and evil left-hand path, in contrast to the lovable and useful sheep which took the right (in both senses of the word) road. The cloven-hooved goat’s links with the great god Pan probably gave it the push over the edge needed for it to be associated with the Devil. But it was St Matthew who, in the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats, finally split the left and right in the name of Jesus. In the Vision of Judgement all nations will be divided before the Son of Man when he appears, as the sheep on his right and the goats on his left. Those on his right will inherit the Kingdom and those on the left hand will be cast into Hell.

            It seems out of character for the Great Man to be prejudiced against such a minority group. Although Jesus was obviously not referring to left-handers in particular, the allusion was enough to damn the left side forever and, with it, those who favoured the use of their left hands. It would be a blasphemy not to carry out Church rituals with the right hand: the sign of the cross, the blessing, the taking and offering of the wafer and chalice of wine. In the marriage ceremony, right hands are joined together, while the metal wedding ring, to ward off evil, is placed on the left hand’s third, or ‘charm’ finger.

            ‘Let not thy left hand know what thy right hand doeth,’ Matthew 6:3 (King James version), said Christ in his Sermon on the Mount. Overmuch has been made by previous writers on the subject of these Biblical quotations, and they were obviously not intended to be taken literally. The more commonsense translation in the Good News Bible states: ‘But when you help a needy person, do it in such a way that even your closest friend will not know about it.’

            Biblical art comes down firmly on the side of the right. Depictions of Christ and God always show them blessing with their right hands, while, in direct contrast, the Devil is always seen hurling curses with the left. Even Michelangelo, a presumed ambidexter, depicted Eve holding the apple in her left hand four times, and we all know what the outcome of that was.

            It has been theorised that man’s obsession with sun worship and sun gods created a bias to the right or east in countless early civilisations, with the exception of the Chinese. The Buddhists favoured the symbolic Red Bird, Yin (south) and tortoise, Yang (north). The left road of life was perilous, while the right eightfold path was propitious. In India, left and right castes dominated the Hindu religion.

The Greek stance

Aristophanes subscribed to the theory that we were all created round and that there were no back, front, left, right, wrong or right sides to us at all. In anger at man’s arrogance, Zeus split us in half and tossed us to Apollo who made us face forwards. If we didn’t behave, we could be split again and made to hop on one leg – the right one presumably. Classical Greek literature is riddled with bias to the right and disdain of the left, even according to Parmenides’ belief that the male foetus was carried on the right and the female on the left.

            Plato described the wonderful place in which the soul rested after it left the body so that it could receive its sentence. The Judges sit between two openings, sending the righteous down the right-hand road leading to Heaven and the criminals down the left-hand road leading downwards. Parables must have travelled far in those days.

            In Plato’s The Laws, the Athenian blames laterality prejudices on ‘the stupidity of nurses and mothers…Indeed, the natural aptitude of the two arms is the same, and it is ourselves who have made them unequal and who do not use them as we should,’ he says, thereby creating another prejudice towards woman’s irresponsibility.

            In Greek mythology, Uranus (Heaven) united with Gaea (Earth), creating seven children, the Titans. The youngest, Cronus, attacked Uranus while he slept, with a flint sickle, castrating him with the left hand and throwing the genitals and sickle into the sea. The severed organ gave birth to Aphrodite but the event did not do much in the way of public relations for the left hand.

The Roman stance

The left fell from favour after the Roman augurs, a religious body of prophets, changed sides. The Roman augurs originally faced the south, so that the east or left side was favourable. The Greek augurs faced the north, rendering the left side unfavourable. Although the Romans overran the Greeks, they unfortunately adopted the Greek custom.

            Originally, a lightning flash from left to right was lucky, upon which the Assembly had the day off. The flight of birds from left to right was also propitious. But the Romans by tradition favoured the right, adopting the right-handed handshake, entering a friend’s home right foot first and inventing the left-to-right alphabet (not to mention the Fascist salute).

Witchcraft and the left

Michel Udon and Pierre Burgot confessed that they rubbed their left arms and hands with a certain powdered ash, and that when they touched an animal, they caused it to die.’ Boguet, Examen of Witches.


No wonder then that superstition of the left became correlated with all things evil, and in particular, the Devil and witchcraft. The evil eye is on the left and the Devil’s rituals and spells are carried out traditionally with the left hand. The Grand Cabbala, some kind of a man-goat, is said to shake hands with his left. The ‘Devil’s mark’ was usually found on the left side of the body.

            Satan’s followers make the circle widdershins, or anti-clockwise, the antithesis of all good sun worshippers. The word is of German derivation – widersin means against the direction. Doing things the opposite way to the norm is the cult’s way of ridiculing traditional religion. The name Satan is taken from the Talmud’s Samael, the Chief of Satans and Prince of Demons, Se’mol meaning left.

            During the Middle Ages, it was, of course, natural to persecute anyone who deviated from the norm, be they red-headed, three-nippled or left-handed. Superstition was based on fear and those who did not conform to the herd’s cognisance of what was acknowledged to be the norm, by virtue of its majority, could be condemned, to eradicate that fear and absolve one’s conscience. Fear of witchcraft had its origin in the guilt experienced by the less charitable members of society who slammed the door in the faces of poverty-stricken old ladies who begged for a crust. It was easier to assuage one’s guilt by blaming them when the milk turned sour. The cult of Black Magic with its left-orientated Black mass was something else.


‘If left-hand fortune give thee left-hand chance, be wisely patient.’ Quarles, Emblems, iv, 1.4.


Judas Iscariot was unlucky enough to spill the salt on the table in da Vinci’s painting of The Last Supper. My mother always threw a pinch of fallen salt over her left shoulder, this superstition stemming from the belief that this is where the Devil stands, the right being the spot where your Guardian Angel hovers. The righteous, of course, always stood on God’s right.

            The left having been negated to a subsidiary and socially unacceptable role, it was no wonder that hopes and desires could be dashed in simple minds by its intrusion in the most mundane happenings. The Scots were wary of which foot went first into their breeches and of putting their ‘skir’ or left foot down first when entering a house. Another unlucky omen was to put one’s left shoe on the right foot by mistake.

            An itching left palm can signify financial loss, it is bad luck to pass the wine with the left hand, or pass the wine bottle anti-clockwise round the table. A feud raged for nearly 20 years between the households of William Hargill and Lord Stourton in the 16th century after Lord Stourton proffered the left-handed toast to the Hargill family, with whom he was out of sorts.

Left-handed cultures

It has been queried whether the Hebrews represented a left-handed culture owing to the fact that they write and read from right to left, but so do the Arabs. In the Old Testament (Judges, 20:16), the tribe of Benjamin in Gibeah boasted 700 specially-chosen left-handed men …’and every one could sling stones at a hair breadth and not miss’, a little ironical when you consider that the word ‘Benjamin’ stems from Ben Yamin, or Son of the Right Hand. They were, eventually severely trounced by the Israelites, being no match for their 400,000 soldiers.

            In Chronicles I, 12:2, a company of left-handed soldiers from the tribe of Benjamin who met David ‘were armed with bows and could use both the right and the left hand in hurling stones and shooting arrows out of a bow.’ A famous left-handed Inca in pre-Spanish Peru was named Lloque Yuponqui, or ‘one who is left-handed and renowned for pious acts.’ Sardinians have been pictured with shields on the right arm holding swords in their left hands, as have many Knoters of the 5th century BC pictured at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. There are many depictions of Egyptians carrying out their daily tasks with the left hand and even a legend that Alexander the Great discovered a left-handed country whose inhabitants tried to convince him that the left hand was more honourable because it was closer to the heart.

            In 1990 Russian scientists discovered that 75 per cent of Taimyr natives living in Russia’s Arctic north were left-handed. It was thought that right-handers aged quicker in extreme cold, but they could find no other satisfactory explanation for this phenomenon.

            Today’s left-handers are more liberally treated, compared to previous generations. So how do they fare in contemporary society, and how are they perceived by the dextral majority?


1990 Diane Paul


 Note: For the answer to that question, see Chapter 2.


 Back to the top