Life + Outdoors » Field Notes

A Paean to Lefties



They squint, they stammer, they shuffle and shamble, they flounder around like seals out of water. Awkward in the house and clumsy in their games, they are fumblers and bunglers at whatever they do. — Sir Cyril Burt, The Backward Child, 1937

Sir Cyril Burt, one-time president of the British Psychological Society and notorious charlatan (for faking studies of twins), sure had it in for lefties. That's whom he was referring to above and his harsh opinion was still current when I went to school: Left-handed kids in my British 1950s classrooms were forced to write with their right hands. Antipathy towardsleft-handers is at least as old as the Roman Empire — we get our word "sinister" from Latin for left, while Latin "dexter," right, gives us dexterous. Other languages follow right along, as it were, with general nastiness toward left-handers: In Italian, mancino means both "left" and "maimed"; Portuguese left, canhoto, is also "weak"; and in Arabic, simal means both "left hand" and "bad omen." I discussed this in a previous column ("The Right Stuff," May 28, 2009). Since then, I've come up with a few more tidbits about left-handers:

An analysis of more than 2 million people worldwide reported that between 9 percent and 18 percent were lefties, depending on how handedness was measured. The figure of 10 percent is often cited as a rule of thumb.

In another study, males were found to be 23 percent more likely than females to be left-handed.

The Cueva de las Manos (Cave of Hands) in Patagonia has more than 2,000 handprints stenciled on its walls, created between 7300 B.C. and 700 A.D., achieved by blowing soot or ochre powder from the mouth through a bone pipe. Of the unambiguous ones, 829 are left hands and 31 right hands. Assuming they were holding the pipe with their (dominant) right hand, it seems fewer than 4 percent of these artists were left-handed.

Left-handedness is somewhat genetic. For instance, if both parents of a child are left-handed, the kid has a 26 percent chance of also being left-handed. It was once thought that a single gene determined your handedness but now it's thought that at least 40 genes are implicated.

Female dogs, horses and domestic cats tend to favor their right limbs; vice versa for males.

Kangaroos are mostly "left-handed." About two-thirds of chimps favor right-handedness, as do about three-quarters of gorillas. Their orangutan cousins are mostly lefties.

U.S. presidents buck the 10 percent rule. Lefties include James Garfield (who was actually ambidextrous), Gerald Ford, George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama. Harry Truman and Ronald Reagan were left-handed, although they wrote with their right hands.

A popular but false myth has it that lefties die earlier than right-handed folk. A large 2019 U..K. study showed no difference in mortality.

Left-handers are over-represented in many sports. Right-handed batters facing leftie pitchers don't have as much experience with southpaws as southpaws have had with them. Likewise in boxing, fencing and other mano a mano sports. (Regarding the term "southpaw": Most baseball diamonds have pitchers facing west, to avoid having batters being blinded by the afternoon sun, so their pitching arms are toward the south.)

Finally, why are most of us right-handed? I've just spent a few hours reading the literature on your behalf (big bucks, you know) and I can report: Theories abound and no one really knows.

Barry Evans (he/him, once had an unhappy experience with a left-handed corkscrew.

Add a comment