Characteristics: Left in a Right-Handed World

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An estimated 260 million people around the globe live left-handed lives in a right-handed world, Leonardo da Vinci and Alexander the Great were lefthanded, and so were Babe Ruth, Michelangelo and Charlemagne. The left hand rules Charlie Chaplin, Robert S. McNamara, Sandy Koufax, Kim Novak and Ringo Starr. They are known as southpaws, gallock-handers, chickie paws and scrammies—and on down a whole list of slangy synonyms whose very length testifies to the fact that for centuries left-handers have been looked upon with suspicion, if not with actual mistrust.

In the Middle Ages, for instance, the left-hander lived in danger of being accused of practicing witchcraft. The Devil himself was considered a southpaw, and he and other evil spirits were always conjured up by left-handed gestures. Even today, language expresses the general prejudice against lefthanders. A lefthanded compliment is actually an insult, the Latin word sinister (left) has taken on a, well, sinister cast, and the French word gauche, which means left, is used to describe a socially awkward person. In Moslem societies, the left hand is considered unclean.

Mild Advantages. The causes of left-handedness remain obscure. Some authorities believe that environment plays a significant role in the child's choice of handedness, while others maintain that heredity is all. Little is known about the problem beyond the fact that the left-hander must learn to fend for himself in a world that seldom pays any heed to his special needs. Production lines grind out an endless assortment of tools and equipment designed solely for the righthander, with only occasional exceptions for lefty. Left-handed golf clubs can be found, but usually they must be specially ordered; there are also left-handed ice-hockey sticks and baseball mitts. Sports, as it happens, is one of the few areas where the southpaw has even mild advantages. Port-siding boxers and tennis players generally enjoy at least a mild advantage over a right-handed foe.

In social situations, however, there are distinct drawbacks: at dinner parties, left-handers find themselves tangling elbows with their partners unless they have had the foresight to seize a chair at the left end of the table. The constant irritations of domestic life are multiplied for the southpaw. Scissors do not work properly, and neither do can openers. Subway turnstiles are right-hand oriented, soldiers salute with the right hand and solemn oaths are sworn the same way.

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