I sprained my thumb recently. After a couple of weeks with it immobilised I’ve gained a new appreciation of the opposable thumb. I’ve also been thinking a lot about left handedness. The injured thumb is firmly attached to my left hand and suddenly I’m back to the level of awkwardness I remember all too well from childhood when I was first learning how to negotiate a world that had been built for the right handed.
Like many left handed people I’m so used to the fact that life is the wrong way round to the extent that I’ve developed a degree of ambidextrosity. I can use right handed scissors, corkscrews and tin openers with my right hand – even if it will always feel a little bit “wrong”. But my left hand will always be the dominant one so it’s been a frustrating couple of weeks. Not being able to hold a pen is head wrecking and my poor little Esterbrook SJs have been sitting on the shelf drying out. Holding a book and turning the pages became a ridiculous struggle and even using the remote control for the TV meant the bloody thing kept leaping out of my hand onto the floor – much to the Husband’s amusement. Even the things I’m used to doing with my right hand seemed more awkward without the left hand to steady everything.
So I’ve spent a lot of time dropping things, complaining and pondering the plight of the left handed. In fairness the left handed thing isn’t a new preoccupation. It’s a fact of life that comes up on an almost daily basis. When I’m working in the courts for example, being the only regular left handed court reporter for a long time meant that I was always the one who would get to sit next to the accused when we reporters used to share a bench with them in the Four Courts. If I didn’t sit on the left end of the row I’d always end up getting elbowed as I tried to take my notes. Then if the case took place in one of the smaller courts on the upper floors, with their cursed seats with the fold out table…I really hate those little flaps, if it’s not me twisting into knots to get my notebook on them and try to write, it was the one beside me grazing my elbow every time I lifted my pen.
The only time being left handed was a positive advantage was when I used to fence. Sparring with right handed people I had a slight edge as it was harder for them to block me across the body while at the same time I was naturally better covered. It doesn’t help much when whoever you’re fencing is better than you granted and it’s damned confusing when you come up against another lefty but on the whole it was a plus.
Statistically left handed people are more likely to be accident prone (I can definitely attest to that one) and we even have a shorter life expectancy than the right handed. We’re not the ones to ask for directions either as a lot of us have difficulty telling right from left after years of confusion. I could go on ad nauseum but I’ll leave other examples to this excellent site from Dr M.K. Holder of Indiana University.
An estimated 10% of the population are left handed and it can be hard for everyone else to understand what the fuss is about. We don’t think about the hand we pick things up with or the hand we use to button our clothes. It’s one of those things that we do instinctively and that’s what makes it so awkward to be programmed to go the other way. Even social greetings slip easily into farce when the majority lean one way for that air kiss and you dip in the opposite direction.
It’s awkward and all too often the left handed lack of right handed coordination is dismissed as clumsiness, stupidity or even something darker. The word “sinister” for example means left on the one hand, on the other it’s all Halloween. The Irish word “ciotóg” meaning left handed person, is all too similar to the Irish word “ciotach” meaning clumsy, but also has echoes of something far wilder – the strange one, touched, perhaps, by the Devil himself. Certainly when someone calls you a “ciotóg” (pronounced kitogue) it certainly doesn’t sound like a compliment.
Evil spirits were supposed to loiter behind the left shoulder – which is why salt is supposed to be thrown in that direction when it’s spilt and the French believed that witches greeted the Devil with their left hand. Even wearing the wedding ring on the left hand comes from the Greek and Roman practice of wearing rings on that finger to ward off evil spirits. And it’s not just Europe. Apparently in Kenya the Meru people believe that the left hand of their holy man is so evil he must keep it hidden. There’s a lot more in that vein here, from the UK site of Anything Left Handed, who used to have a magical shop in Soho, in London that was my first introduction to things like left handed scissors.
I was lucky though. At least I was left to be left handed. So many people, in so many countries were forced to learn to write with their right hand. Many were left mentally scarred, with speech and even with learning difficulties because of it. Left handed people were for a long time believed to be rules by the right side of the brain – the intuitive side that’s good at the lateral, creative stuff. It’s since been found that it’s not quite that simple but there do seem to be quite a few left handed people in the arts – based on my own completely un scientific observations.
I’ve learnt to negotiate the world just fine but the very fact that it’s always my left side that gets injured probably puts the lie to that. Over the years I’ve had a broken arm, broken ankle, sprained wrist, sprained shoulder and the most recent sprained thumb – always on the left. It’s just an extra level of annoyance in day to day life. Walking down the street with a right handed person there’s always that introductory waltz as I try to walk on their left while they would prefer me on their right for easy conversation. Even my all consuming stationary fixation is necessarily tempered by practicality – school years spent with ink stains all up the side of my hand have left me with a preoccupation about quick drying inks and flat opening notebooks. It’s such a pervasive kink it’s impossible to ignore – even if it’s something I rarely discuss because for 90% of the population these things just aren’t a problem. That’s just the way it is.
But before I stop I’d like to mention a new entrant to the world of the sinister. Irish company On the Other Hand have recently launched an Irish left handed shop so if you’re based here in Ireland you can still buy Irish and get left handed scissors and tin openers galore – and the rest. I’m not connected to them in any way but it’s always nice to see people who understand how irritating the right orientation can be – even if you’re used to it and deal with it just as you’ve always done.
The thumb is now almost better and I’m sure I’ll be back to normal in a couple of days but I’m not going to stop being left handed. We all move through life in our own groove – I’m just more likely to bump into others because I will invariably go the wrong way!