The Grammarphobia Blog

The proper perspective

Q: I can’t find definitions for “proper left” and “proper right.” These phrases are commonly used by art conservators to designate direction (like “stage left” and “stage right” in the theater world), but I can’t find the definitions in any dictionary, even the OED. Why not? Where might I find these definitions?

A: Museum curators and art conservators often use the terms “proper left” and “proper right” to describe paintings and sculptures. They do this to avoid any confusion about which arm or leg (or whatever) they’re talking about. The “proper left hand” of a person in a painting or sculpture, for example, is the subject’s left hand, not the one that simply is on the left from the viewer’s perspective.

I did find a couple of references in the Oxford English Dictionary, including a 1948 citation from the journal Endeavour: “An X-radiograph [of the picture] made after cleaning revealed the density in the region near the proper right hand.”

This is an example of nomenclature (or jargon) that’s peculiar to a particular field. Often such terminology isn’t found in general dictionaries, like the use of “graf” (paragraph) and “lede” (lead paragraph) in newspaper lingo.

I hope this helps!

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