Many Romance languages have totally different words for "left": Spanish says izquierda and Portuguese has esquerda, the Italian word is sinistra, and French uses gauche. This is somewhat surprising, since these languages all evolved from Latin.

In fact, some of these words for "left" come from other languages entirely. Spanish and Portuguese borrowed the word ezkerra from Basque—a totally unrelated language still spoken today in the north of Spain and southwestern France. And the French word gauche was adopted in the 15th century from Germanic languages, to replace the older term senestre, which came from Latin.

However, this isn’t a unique case. Across languages, especially those spoken in parts of Europe and Asia, words for "left" tend to be varied and unstable—they get borrowed and replaced a lot. This is pretty unlike words for "right," which tend to remain unchanged over time. (For example, derecho in Spanish, direito in Portuguese, and droit in French also come from Latin DĪRĒCTUS!)

But why would this be the case?

Why languages avoid words for "left"

The reasons behind the various words for "left" are most likely rooted in ancient culture and human physiology.

If you consider some of the world’s largest and oldest religions, it is impossible not to notice a few commonalities. For example, there is a widespread preference for the right side over the left:

  • Hinduism: The right side is considered auspicious, and sacred rituals or ceremonies are performed using the right hand as a sign of respect and purity. In Hindu tradition, the left hand is considered impure because it is used for cleaning the body.
  • Christianity: In the Bible, the right hand of God is a significant symbol of strength, blessing and even salvation. For instance, Jesus Christ is said to sit at the right hand of God, indicating a position of honor and authority. Meanwhile, Satan dwells on the left hand of God.
  • Islam: In Islamic traditions, the right hand is preferred for honorable actions such as greetings, eating, and giving and receiving objects, because the right hand signifies purity and respect. On the other hand (pun intended), the left hand is considered unclean.

The bias towards the right hand was reinforced by the fact that right-handed people significantly outnumber left-handers across the world. As a result, people came to think of the right side as “good” or “normal,” while the left acquired negative connotations to the point of becoming a taboo.

How languages avoid taboo words for "left"

People are often uncomfortable discussing or even naming taboos so when they have to do so, they get creative!

One popular strategy is to find a socially acceptable replacement word. Have you noticed how swear words in your own language(s) tend to feel a lot more loaded than their equivalent in a language you don’t know as well? Taboos work the same: Because people want to avoid the taboo word in their own language, they use a word from another language!

So Spanish speakers borrowed ezkerra from Basque, French speakers from Germanic languages, etc.

Word replacement isn’t the only way in which the moral connotations of “right” vs. “left” have influenced language. Another is the development of words and expressions that highlight this divide. Here are just a few of the many examples from European languages:

  • Italian: sinistra means both “left” and “sinister.”
  • Portuguese: mão esquerda translates to "left hand," but it can also metaphorically mean someone is awkward or clumsy.
  • English: out of left field is a baseball reference that means something is unexpected or even bizarre.
  • Swedish: vänsterprassel is a somewhat humorous term that translates literally to "left rustle," but is actually slang for infidelity.

These examples highlight how beliefs held by a group of speakers can influence their language. In turn, language then perpetuates these biases.

The left is alright

The story of “right” vs. “left” provides an intriguing glimpse into our cultural history, reminding us of how ancient beliefs continue to influence some of our words and perceptions today.