The Grammarphobia Blog

Hand signals

Q: I’ve always wondered why some people say “right-hand turn” or “left-hand turn” instead of the more succinct “left turn” or “right turn.” If they’re going to use a body part, why not “right-foot turn” or “left-nostril turn”?

A: Perhaps people sometimes use “hand” in these directional phrases because they so often use their hands in gesturing to show such directions.

In any case, it seems natural to associate right and left with our right and left hands.

The Oxford English Dictionary has citations for “right-hand” or “right hand”—meaning on or toward the right—dating back to 1576.

John Milton used the adjective in Paradise Lost (1667): “Som times He scours the right hand coast.”

So did William Bartam in his Travels in North and South Carolina (1791): “On the right hand side was the Orangery.”

Similarly, “left-hand” or “left hand” has been used for centuries, meaning on, toward, or placed on the left side, the OED says.

Here’s a quotation from the satirist Samuel Rowlands (1598): “A little from that place Vpon the left-hand side.”

Both “right-hand” and “left-hand” have metaphorical meanings as well, stemming from age-old associations of “right” with correctness and “left” with wrongness.

Since Old English, “right-hand” has meant valuable or superior, as in “he’s my right-hand man,” or “to give the right hand of fellowship.”

This meaning probably came about, the OED says, “on account of the perception that the right hand was the stronger and the more appropriate for most tasks.”

And for centuries, “left-hand” has meant illegitimate (as in “a child on the left-hand side”), ill-omened, inferior, or sinister.

In fact, the Latin word sinister means left or left-hand, while the Latin dextra, which gave us “dexterous,” means the right hand.

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