Right hand or left hand?
One of the things I look for in infants is their hand preference. In my experience this does not usually begin to assert itself until about the age of 12 months, though people far more expert than me say that it shows at 6 months. Some even suggest that it is apparent in the womb. Until a preference begins to be established, the child handles everything in either hand with equal ease. Even at four years old it may not be confirmed. I have seen children start to write across a sheet with the left hand and continue with the right hand with no hesitation or difficulty or discernible difference in letter formation or size.
When I was teaching I was always aware of a child’s hand preference and made sure to seat left-handed children to the left of right-handers so that they were not bumped as they worked.
We talk of people being ‘dexterous’, meaning adept or nimble-fingered. ‘Dexter’ is Latin for right. Another synonym for dexterous is ‘adroit’, from the mid-17th century French ‘à droit’ for ‘according to right’ or ‘proper’. So we can see that it is ‘good’ and ‘proper’ to be right-handed.
Late Middle English ‘sinister’ carried the meaning of ‘malicious’ or ‘underhand’, deriving from the Latin ‘sinister’ and Old French ‘sinistre’ for left. If something is described as sinister it is assumed to be evil and better not encountered.
In Matthew 25, Jesus spoke of the Day of Judgement, when people would be separated into sheep and goats, the sheep to the right and the goats to the left, the sheep for glory, the goats for damnation.
Elsewhere in the world, in Muslim countries, the left hand is still considered dirty. It is discourteous to offer that hand to help someone or to eat with it. In modern China there are virtually no left-handers.
In the late 80s I was told that a left-handed Japanese little girl in my class educated in England and returning to Japan would have to adopt right-handed ways for calligraphy. When I queried this, the child’s mother shrugged and said, ‘I had to do it’.
Until 1950 British left-handed children were forced to use the right hand, the left hand being tied back to prevent it being used. This custom was still in use when my husband went to school, but it didn’t work for him and he remained resolutely left-handed. The practice continued until the 1970s in Canada.
‘The methods used to obtain this result were often tortuous, including tying a resistant child’s left hand to immobilise it. Typical of the reasoning to justify such practices is a 1924 letter to the British Medical Journal endorsing “retraining” of left-handers to write with their right hands, because otherwise the left-handed child would risk “retardation in mental development; in some cases…actual feeble-mindedness”. As late as 1946 the former chief psychiatrist of the New York City Board of Education, Abram Blau, warned that, unless retrained, left-handed children risked severe developmental and learning disabilities and insisted that “children should be encouraged in their early years to adopt dextrality…in order to become better equipped to live in our right-sided world”’
King George VI was naturally left-handed but forced to become right-handed. Did this contribute to his terrible stammer? It seems at least possible.
The reasons for handedness are complicated and there seem to be no definitive answers other than it is determined by genes and environment. About 50% more males than females are left-handed and 17% of twins.
The Netherlands has one of the highest incidences of left-handedness, followed by the USA and Canada, all around 13%. The UK is just below 13%.
I am intrigued by the question of hand preference. My husband and the youngest of our four children – a daughter - are left-handed. All my family, as far back as I know, were right-handed and that was the case for Barry’s family. So far, none of our grandchildren or great-grandchildren have proved to be lefties.
How many of you are left-handed?