Why my Nan was both Sinister and Dexterous

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My late Nan was an interesting woman.

She wasn’t easy to get on with sometimes. No twinkly eyed smiles, no heart-warming snuggles or  Werther’s Original sharing with this lady – she was built of tougher stuff.

She was an ambulance driver during the Second World War, dodging crumbling buildings, rescuing injured Londoners from their ruined, Blitz-out homes.

After the war was over, and with her husband and two daughters in tow (I shan’t discuss her private life too much here, but man – it was as torrid as a Catherine Cookson novel!) she settled to down to running a grocer’s shop filled with Vim, Lux soap flakes and with the little girl who would grow up to be my mum, sitting in the back room making paper bags to carry pig’s hearts or lard or tripe or whatever it was that people were eating whilst rationing still held the nation in its stony grip.

Later, Nan went on to run a pub, supposedly haunted by the old publican who’d committed suicide there – it was said you could see the shadow of the poor man’s corpse swinging over the back stairs. Before she retired, she ran a wool shop selling needles, yarn, and terrifically fashionable patterns chock-a-block with very happy looking people gazing into the distance whilst wearing fair isle jumpers (If you fancy laughing your backside off, I implore to click this link – it is what the internet was made for).

She was Chair of her local Women’s Institute, a dab hand at anything that required a needle and thread and had a fascination with renovating china dolls that tipped into the creepy (because china dolls are a bit creepy, right?)

She couldn’t cook for toffee (and she certainly wouldn’t have been able to cook toffee) but apart from that she was a pretty good all-rounder.

The fact that she was naturally left-handed seemed not to handicap her at all. And why should it, I hear you cry – that was you, right? But according to history, being left-handed made her wrong in every way.

Today’s Wednesday Word Tangle is –

Sinister.

Now, if you’re not thinking of the rather unpleasant horror film, starring Ethan Hawke, you’ll be thinking of the word itself, for which the Oxford Dictionary’s  definition is ‘Giving the impression that something harmful or evil is happening or will happen’. Underneath you’ll find the other, heraldic meaning which refers to the left hand side of a coat of arms (the viewer’s right).

Sinister is Latin for left – dexter means right. So while all the right handers are doing ‘right’ and being ‘dexterous’, all the South Paws are skulking around, being ‘sinister’ and dancing ‘with two left feet’.

Who should we blame for this terrible slur, this miscarriage of manual justice?

I’m tempted to say the Gospel writers, who tell us that at Christ’s crucifixion, the Good Thief was hung on the right hand of Christ, the Bad, Unrepentant Thief on the left. My art history lecturer told us that this led to an unwritten language in Medieval art, with bad things and people on the left of a painting and the good on the right*.

I can’t just blame the Gospels, though, because cultures the world over favour right over left hands. A quick, half-arsed Google search threw up Islamic, Asian and Jewish cultural traditions that all have the same idea – right = good, left = bad**. And I guess as the Gospel writers were Jewish, they were probably merely using the assumptions they’d been brought up with.

There is inbuilt prejudice against left-handers – the structure of handwritten English favours righties, as do scissors, computer mice, the configuration of electrical goods such as microwaves and tills etc etc etc. Just ask Ned Flanders if you don’t believe me.

My Nan actually became ambidextrous, able to do many things just as well with her right hand. Though this wasn’t through choice – at school she was beaten with a ruler every time she tried to use her left hand.

This doesn’t happen anymore, and certainly wasn’t in practice when I was at school.

How can I be sure? Well, I’m a left-hander too, of course.


* The left hand side of a painting (right hand from the viewer’s standpoint) was deemed the ‘female side’ as well as the naughty one –

Female + left-handed = Totally Knackered as far as Medieval thinking was concerned.

See the Arnolfini Portrait and its male/female symbolism.

**There are still strong cultural traditons in many parts of the world, which deem the left-hand to be lesser or dirty.

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7 thoughts on “Why my Nan was both Sinister and Dexterous

  1. You have a great way of telling a story Lynn. Your gran sounds amazing! What a lady!
    I did know the etymology this time! Yay!
    I remember my parents talking about the punishment for being a “Southpaw” too. And it must be so frustrating having to use right handed tools etc. Someone really should start that shop that Flanders had!
    Great post again!
    Oh and left is sinistra in Italian!
    Kat x

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Sinistra, eh? How come the Italians can make anything sound gorgeous? What a language.
      It must be awful to be punished for using the hand most natural to you. Though, as I say, it did mean she was pretty much ambidexterous, so I that must have been useful. She was a little odd in many ways, though – maybe having to use the wrong hand made her bitter 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I remember trying to make a list of all the ways left-handedness was associated with poorer qualities – you can add gauche and cack-handed to the list, along with sinister. I wonder if you get the same connotations in other language groups?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Ooh, very good question – it’s such a widespread prejudice you surely must do. It would be interesting to find out. Of course, totally forgot cack-handed – I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve been called that over the years. And you’re right about gauche, although I don’t know anyone who uses the word – it’s rather an erudite one. I’m sure there are more phrases too …

      Like

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