The Grammarphobia Blog

A right good word

Q: I was recently reminded, once again, that the captain of the H. M. S. Pinafore commands “a right good crew.” This led me to wonder about the many and varied senses of “right.” Do they all derive from a single core meaning?

A: In Act I of H.M.S. Pinafore, Captain Corcoran sings to the ship’s crew, “You’re very, very good, / And be it understood, / I command a right good crew.”

Sir William S. Gilbert used “right” in that lyric as an adverb meaning something like “very.” This sense of the word, used to modify an adjective, has been around since Old English, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

Here’s a similar example, from an 1861 letter written by Edward Fitzgerald : “He is a right good little Fellow, I do believe.”

You’re right (that is, correct) in saying that “right” has many and varied meanings. Let’s take a walk through them.

Adverb: We mentioned Captain Corcoran’s usage. “Right” used as an adverb can also mean directly or immediately (as in to “go right home”), vertically (“she sat right up”), appropriately (“make sure it’s done right”), or accurately (“If I remember right”).

Adjective: Among other things, the adjective “right” can mean correct, accurate, straight, direct, true, well-aimed, proper, sound, upright, satisfactory, normal, legitimate, lawful, genuine, or 90-degree. And here are some other adjectival usages.

In British and Irish English, the adjective is sometimes used as an intensifier meaning, in the words of the OED, “complete, absolute, total, utter” (as in “I felt a right fool”).

Also, “right” can refer to one side of the body (as opposed to the left), a usage that the dictionary says was first recorded in Old English in the noun phrase “right hand.”

And “right” is used to indicate a direction, a sense that  the OED says “probably referred originally to the perception that the right hand was the stronger and the more appropriate for most tasks.”

The political sense of “right” originated in revolutionary France, where the term le côté droit referred to the right-hand side of the Assembly. As the OED says, the term “right” was used “with reference to the seating of nobles and high clergy to the right of the Chair, and the third estate and lower-status clergy to the left.”

Interjection: “Right” has been an interjection of agreement since Shakespeare’s time. Today it’s also used ironically to express doubt, as in “Yeah, right.”

Noun: Since early Old English, “right” has been a noun meaning privilege or entitlement (as in “knowing one’s rights”). And for just as long, it’s had meanings related to fairness, goodness, justice, and the like (as in “He’s on the side of right and reason”).

In the 19th century, the plural “rights” was first used in the copyright sense. And of course in political and many other senses, the word is used as a noun: “extremists on the right” … “a right to the jaw” … “take a right at the next corner” … “set the kitchen to rights” … “as of right” … “do right by your brother” … “in her own right.”

Verb: As a verb, “right” can mean to correct, to straighten, to set upright, to recover one’s balance, to set back into place, to put back into order, to rectify, to repair, or to vindicate or avenge.

You asked if all these senses of “right” are derived from the same root. Yes, that’s what linguists believe. Here’s the story.

The word’s ancestor in English and the other Germanic languages is a prehistoric Proto-Germanic root that’s been reconstructed as rekhtaz. This in turn has been linked to an even earlier reconstructed source in Indo-European, reg (to move in a straight line).

The Indo-European reg is thought to be the ultimate source for “right,” not only in English and other Germanic languages but also in Latin (rectus, straight), Greek (orektos, stretched out), Old Irish (recht, law), Welsh (rhaith, law), Sanskrit (raji, straight), and Old Persian (rasta, straight).

Besides its relatives in foreign languages, “right” has many cousins in English—words that are derived from the same Indo-European source. These include “address,” “correct,” “direct,” “erect,” “guide,” “raj,” “rector,” “realm,” “regal,” “regime,” “regular,” “regent,” “regiment,” “royal,” “rule,” and more.

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