A hymn to lefties | Field Notes
They squint, they stutter, they shuffle and shuffle, they thrash about like seals out of water. Clumsy at home and clumsy in their games, they are clumsy and clumsy in everything they do. — Mr. Cyril Burt, The retarded child1937
Sir Cyril Burt, former president of the British Psychological Society and notorious charlatan (for faking twin studies), certainly had a thing for lefties. He was the one he was referring to above and his stern opinion was still relevant when I went to school: left-handed children in my British classes in the 1950s were forced to write with their right hand . Antipathy towards lefties is at least as old as the Roman Empire – we get our word “sinister” from the Latin for left, while the Latin “dexter”, right, gives us agile. Other languages follow, so to speak, with a general nastiness towards left-handers: in Italian, mancino means both “left” and “mutilated”; Portuguese left, canhoto, is also “weak”; and in Arabic, that bad means both “left hand” and “bad omen”. I talked about it in a previous column (“The Right Stuff”, May 28, 2009). Since then, I’ve found some additional information about lefties:
An analysis of over 2 million people worldwide found that between 9% and 18% were left-handed, depending on how laterality was measured. The 10% figure is often cited as a rule of thumb.
In another study, men were 23% more likely than women to be left-handed.
The Cueva de las Manos (Cave of the Hands) in Patagonia has more than 2,000 handprints engraved on its walls, created between 7300 BC and 700 AD, obtained by blowing soot or ocher powder from the mouth through a bone pipe. Of the unambiguous, 829 are left hands and 31 are right hands. Assuming they held the pipe with their right (dominant) hand, it appears that less than 4% of these performers were left-handed.
Left-handedness is somewhat genetic. For example, if both parents of a child are left-handed, the child has a 26% chance of also being left-handed. It was once thought that a single gene determined your laterality, but now at least 40 genes are thought to be involved.
Female dogs, horses, and domestic cats tend to favor their upright limbs; vice versa for men.
Kangaroos are mostly “left-handed”. About two-thirds of chimpanzees prefer to be right-handed, as do about three-quarters of gorillas. Their orangutan cousins are mostly left-handed.
American presidents go against the 10% rule. Lefties include James Garfield (who was actually ambidextrous), Gerald Ford, George HW Bush, Bill Clinton, and Barack Obama. Harry Truman and Ronald Reagan were left-handed, although they wrote with their right hand.
A popular but false myth is that left-handed people die earlier than right-handed people. A great 2019 U..K. study showed no difference in mortality.
Lefties are overrepresented in many sports. Right-handed hitters against left-handed pitchers don’t have as much experience with left-handers as left-handers have had with them. Likewise in boxing, fencing and others mano a mano sports. (Regarding the term “left-handed”: most baseball fields have west-facing pitchers, to keep batters from being blinded by the afternoon sun, so their pitching arms are facing south.)
Finally, why are we mostly right-handed? I just spent a few hours reading the literature on your behalf (lots of money, you know) and I can point out: theories abound and no one really knows.
Barry Evans (he/him, barryevans9yahoo.com) once had a bad experience with a left-handed corkscrew.