You Don’t Say: Ableist Language Sucks


Recognizing ableism in language is important. There is no “default and alternative,” and language should never infer, refer or defer to anyone or any group as inferior or superior. The same applies to ableist language and left handedness. It exists, it should be recognized as a problem.

There are some words which cannot be changed, even if they are biased. Not only would no one accede to a different term than human rights, what would we replace it with? But the word right and its usage – ability, correctness, appropriateness, justice, political leanings, morality, possession – all have positive connotations. Only the use of right for political extremism is used in a negative way. (See also: the root -rect- which means right, as in correct, rectangle.)

Compare this with the word left. In nearly every language worldwide, the word left has derogatory meaning or usage: inferiority, weakness error, evil, incompetence, femininity, homosexuality. Most reading this will say that femininity and homosexuality are not things to be ashamed of. Why should any derogatory meaning be attached to the word left?

There are not just negative definitions but also colloquialisms and metaphors:

  • “two left feet”
  • “left handed compliment”
  • “good with the left hand” (Japan: a heavy drinker, an alcoholic)
  • “on the left” (Russia: corrupt)
  • “left luck” (Hungarian: bad luck)
  • “left handed marriage” (an affair)
  • “left handed wife” (a mistress)
  • “left hander” (homosexual)
  • “left hand path” (satanism)

The list of terms used to insult seems endless: awkward, butterfingered, cack handed, cuddy wifter, gauche, graceless, ham-fisted, ham-handed, handless, heavy-handed, maladroit, molly dooker, southpaw, unhandy.

It’s reasonable to ask (but unrealistic to expect) that no connotations be attached to either hand (no more use of right for “good” or “correct”). But it is not difficult to use proper and appropriate (Latin proprius: one’s own, special) instead of right for things that are good and well fitting (e.g. “the proper way” instead of “the right way”).

Comments

  1. cartomancer says

    Have you come across the story of Gaius Mucius Scaevola? The legendary Roman assassin from Rome’s pre-Republican Royal Age?

    The name Scaevola means left-handed in Latin (we are more used to “sinister” as the usual Latin word for left, which is perhaps the most culturally loaded term of this sort of all). Cognomina like this were common among Roman aristocratic families, and served to distinguish different branches. They generally derived from a prominent physical characteristic of a line’s ancestor – “Caesar” meant long-haired, for instance, “Ahenobarbus” meant red-bearded, and “Cicero” was probably a reference to a prominent facial wart that looked like a chickpea. So the Scaevolae were descended from a left-hander.

    Except that wasn’t nearly exciting or prestigious enough for Romans with aspirations to an illustrious ancestry, so a different story was told. As Livy tells it Gaius Mucius was a daring assassin, who snuck into the camp of the Etruscan king Lars Porsenna in order to murder him and hence lift the Etruscan siege of Rome. Mucius couldn’t tell which one was the king, stabbed a random bureaucrat by mistake and ended up being captured. In order to show his bravery and rattle Porsenna, Mucius thrust his right hand into a nearby brazier and held it there until it was ruined, which caused Porsenna to let him go and convinced him that the Romans were not a people to be trifled with. Hence he was known as Scaevola – left-handed – ever after.

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