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Which Is Best — Right or Left?


We all, at some time or another, have commented: ‘He definitely put his best foot forward,’ or ‘she got up on the wrong side of the bed today’. What in fact is the ‘best foot’ and what is ‘the wrong side’?

In the world of superstition, the right side is generally regarded as the lucky side. As most people have always been right-handed, the left side of the body was considered the weaker side. It was therefore believed to be advantageous for evil forces to lurk on the left and to strike from this side. 

This notion has left its mark on most Western languages, which explains why the Latin word sinistra, meaning ‘on the left hand’ became the English word ‘sinister’, describing all that is foreboding and ominous. In a similar context, the word ‘awkward’, meaning ‘clumsy’, originates from the Middle English word awk, which meant ‘in the wrong direction’. The French word gauche, meaning ‘left’ has a more negative connotation when used in English. Similarly, we state that someone is ‘right’, meaning the person is ‘correct’. 

The concepts of right and left as used in a positive and negative association date to the dawn of humankind. Cultures in the Northern Hemisphere observed thousands of years ago that the sun, the symbol of life, moves through the heavens sunwise, or towards the right. Traditionally, the left side was identified with the west, the side of the setting sun and, thus, death. A euphemism for death still in use is ‘going west’. Vanishing light must have been associated in earlier days with the departing of good fortune and strength, irrevocably influencing humankind’s foreboding about the left side, which was therefore associated with ill luck. 

Ancient augurs, when viewing the flight of birds, drifting clouds, or the layout of entrails from sacrificial animals to predict the future, invariably regarded a tendency to the left as indicating coming misfortune. 

The left side is the side of illegitimate occult powers and inspires fear. The left hand is used for ceremonial magic. Black magic is still regarded as the ‘left-hand’ path, and to ‘move to the left’ in magic is to attract evil influences. 

A tradition found worldwide associates male gender with the right side and female gender with the left. The differentiation of male and female into the opposites right and left was Pythagorean (570-495 BCE) in origin and written down in his Table of Opposites. First century Roman scholar and naturalist, Pliny the Elder, confirmed this belief, stating that boys are usually carried on the right side of the womb and girls on the left.32 Medieval anatomical drawings show the womb as a mysterious organ with seven chambers. The three chambers on the left were thought to produce girls; the three on the right brought forth boys, whereas the chamber in the middle produced hermaphrodites. 

In African societies, women are generally associated with the left side and men with the right, women always occupying the left side of the homestead and men sitting on the right, as seen from the entrance. In Europe, even in modern times, the bride and her relations are customarily put on the left side of the church. Formerly, there was also great superstition attached to a priest’s left hand. The left hand was considered unlucky to the faithful. As the priest used both hands in blessing during communion or confirmation, the superstitious purposefully positioned themselves, not without much disruptive scuffling, so as to avoid his left hand.

Getting out of bed on the left side or with the left foot first was also considered unlucky, and this superstition similarly applied to entering a house left foot first. If one inadvertently did so, the bad luck was only averted by leaving immediately and re-entering with the right foot first. The Romans felt so strongly about entering a house with the right foot first that wealthier families employed servants to cry out ‘right foot first’ to ensure visitors did not visit ill luck on the house. This was the forerunner of what later became known as the footman – a servant who answers the door.

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