The Curious Meaning and Origin of the Word ‘Sinister’

By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)

What does the word ‘sinister’ have to do with being left-handed? And what was the meaning of the word ‘ambidextrous’ when it was first coined? And what do these two questions have to do with each other? Let’s take a closer look at the interesting origins of the word ‘sinister’.

Let’s start with the etymology of the word. The English word ‘sinister’ is from the Latin meaning ‘left’ or ‘left-handed’, although the word probably entered the English language via the French senestre, from the same Latin root.

However, even in Roman times, the word attracted particular associations: the OED lists ‘unfavourable’ omens, as well as the words ‘evil’ and ‘malicious’. This is because the association between left-handedness and evil intention goes back a long way.

Indeed, in English use, ‘sinister’ skipped the neutral meaning (simply denoting something on the left, or a left-handed person) and jumped straight to the malicious one: when the word first turns up, in the early fifteenth century, it’s being used to in reference to deceit, misfortune, evil, or foreboding.

Thereafter, a person who gave misleading advice or information was labelled ‘sinister’, and the modern sense was born from this, and was already common by the late fifteenth century. It would only be in 1562 that the word would first be applied to heraldry, where it simply designates the left side of a shield, as distinct from ‘dexter’ (the right side).

‘Bend sinister’ is the heraldic term denoting a diagonal line running from the top-left (or ‘sinister chief’) to the bottom-right (or ‘dexter base’) of a shield: such a line indicates that the bearer of the shield was illegitimate.

Perhaps because the evil and malicious connotations of ‘sinister’ have always been so strong, use of the word in reference simply to left-handed people has always been ‘rare’, as the OED also notes.

But this bias towards right-handed people and against left-handed people is there in other words, too. Even using the phrase ‘right-handed’ reminds us that ‘right’ means both ‘opposite to left’ and ‘correct’ or, if you will, ‘opposite to wrong’. The old joke about the Englishman who, asked upon his return from France whether the French drive on ‘the right side of the road’, replies ‘no, they drive on the wrong side’, illustrates this double meaning, which is surely not accidental.

And consider the word ‘dexterous’, which means ‘skilled’: this is from the Latin dexter, meaning ‘right’, as in ‘right-handed’. By contrast, if you describe someone as ‘gauche’, because they are clumsy or awkward when performing a physical task, you are (perhaps inadvertently) perpetuating this anti-left bias, since ‘gauche’ is from the French for ‘left’.

When the word ‘ambidextrous’ first turned up in the language in the seventeenth century, it had two related but different meanings. Curiously, the OED’s earliest record for both senses of the word are from the same year, 1646, so that doesn’t help us to establish which was likely the original meaning.

The first of these two meanings from 1646 is found in Pseudodoxia Epidemica, a remarkable book (commonly known as ‘Vulgar Errors’) by the English writer and polymath Sir Thomas Browne (1605-82). Browne used the word in the usual, modern sense, to refer to someone who is able to use their right and left hands equally well. An ‘ambidextrous’ person is, then, dexterous, or skilled, with both hands.

Browne is credited with coining, or being one of the first to use, a whole host of now familiar words: additionally, approximate, biped, bisect, botanical, capillary, carnivorous, coexistence, coma, compensate, complicated, continuum, convulse, cryptography, cylindrical, cynicism, depreciate, discrimination, disruption, dissemination, electricity, elevator, executive, factitious, ferocious, follicle, gypsum, hallucination, illustrative, inactivity, incisor, indigenous, insecurity, invariably, locomotion, praying mantis, medical, narwhal, non-existence, ossuary, parturition, patois, perspire, prairie, precipitous, precocious, prefix, presumably, protrusion, secretion, selection, subsidence, temperamental, transferable, transgressive, and ulterior.

But, contemporary with Browne’s use of ‘ambidextrous’ was another, different sense of the word. ‘Ambidextrous’ was also used in 1646 in relation to religious matters, and carried the meaning ‘Characterized by double-dealing, or a wish to please two opposing parties; deceitful; hypocritical’ (OED). One can see how this meaning would relate to the word’s etymology: someone ‘ambidextrous’ was skilled at pleasing and entertaining two different parties facing in different directions from each other.

Curiously, the word ‘sinister’ was almost certainly pronounced with the main stress on the second syllable, rather than the first, until quite recently. As the OED entry for ‘sinister’ observes, evidence from poetry suggests that the word was usually stressed on the second syllable until the first half of the eighteenth century, and this pronunciation appears to have survived into the nineteenth century.

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