Does anyone know of a connection, or some sort of established historical/etymological explanation why in a few languages, "the opposite of left" and "legal term" are the same or seemingly related words? Do they all have a common root? Did they develop independently?

Examples:

  • English: right - right
  • French: droit - droit
  • German: rechts - Recht
  • Polish: prawo - prawo
  • Russian: право - право
  • Finnish: oikea - oikea
  • Mungbam: -ntSEhE- -ntSEhE ("left/wrong")

If you know of more examples that have the same connection, you can add them to your answer.

up vote 5 down vote accepted

In medieval Christian theology, things that were left-handed were things that belonged to Satan (or were corrupted by him). This is where the Latin-derived word sinister became synonymous with evil (even in Latin sinestra meant unlucky as well as left). Right being the opposite of left therefore became associated with good purely by being the opposite.

Historically, the left side, and subsequently left-handedness, was considered negative in many cultures. The Latin word sinistra originally meant "left" but took on meanings of "evil" or "unlucky" by the Classical Latin era, and this double meaning survives in Italian, and in the English word "sinister".

Source.

  • 2
    I understand now the connotation of left being bad and right good, but from what I've read so far, it originated before christian theology became dominant enough to influence language. Are the origins really in Latin? Or maybe earlier languages - what about outside of the indo-european scope? And if it should be Latin, is there a first documented usage? To when does this concept of left being bad and right good date back to? I remember something about babys in ancient greece being allowed to move their right hands first, while having their left hands kept bound... – Rafael Emshoff Sep 14 '12 at 17:15
  • 2
    Vjacheslav Ivanov (UCLA and RGGU) argues that the left-right dichotomy has been known since Ancient Egypt; left associated with women, right with men. As for Latin, there were other words too, laevus and scaevus. – Alex B. Sep 14 '12 at 23:36
  • 2
    This answer addresses why "right (direction)" is related to "right (good)", but not why it is related to "right (entitlement)". – Mark Beadles Sep 15 '12 at 21:39
  • 3
    In Taiwanese Hokkien, tsiànn is the everyday morpheme for right (direction). It also means upright/straight, real, primary, or exactly (as in exactly on time). One expression for the left hand is bái-tshiú. Bái means ugly/bad. – ROBOKiTTY Sep 18 '12 at 13:28
  • 2
    In Mandarin, zuǒ is the morpheme for left (direction). It's occasionally associated with impropriety. The phrase pángmén zuǒdào, lit. 'sidedoor left-way', originally referred to unorthodox cults. It can mean any non-accepted mode of thinking today. – ROBOKiTTY Sep 18 '12 at 13:29

The English word "right" comes from Proto-Indo-European word o̯reĝtos which meant "correct" and had cognates o̯reĝr "directive, order", o̯reĝs "king, ruler", o̯reĝti "guides, directs", o̯reĝi̯om "kingdom". The root itself meant "direct, straight" and reflected in many English words both inherited and borrowed, such as "direction", "correction", "rectum", "region".

The Russian and Polish word "pravo" originates from a different PIE root and cognate with the English word "first" and German word "Frau". The basic meaning of the root "per-" was "over", "through" as in PIE adverb peri, but later the meaning also shifted to "against" as in proti, "forward, ahead" and further to "first" as in prou̯os.

The later word, prou̯os, meaning "first" was used to designate a province headsman ("first" in the settlement), and later "judge" and "lord" (with feminine form preu̯ia̯ meaning "mistress, lady", reflected in German "Frau") and gave rise to the Slavic legal term as well as the Russian terms meaning "correct", "just".

I can think of two different relations between "right" meaning a direction and "right" meaning correct.

  1. Biology: the right hand is usually stronger; it is the "right" (correct) hand to do things. The left hand is the "left" (remaining; from "leave") hand.

  2. Astronomy: in the northern hemisphere, when people get up in the morning and look to the direction of the rising sun (= east), they see it turning slightly to the right of them (= south). Keeping in mind the great importance of the sun, it is easy to understand why they regarded the right side as the "correct" side, and the left side as symbolizing darkness, wrongness and evil. Note also that in Biblical Hebrew, the same word "yamin" is used for "right" and "south", and the same word "smol" is used for "left" and "north".

I am not a linguist so I am not sure whether there is evidence to one explanation over the other.

If you're referring to the right, as in conservative politics, that originated in France long ago when the right-wing politicians would sit on the right side of the room, while left-wing politicians would sit on the left.

Your Answer

 
discard

By clicking "Post Your Answer", you acknowledge that you have read our updated terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy, and that your continued use of the website is subject to these policies.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.