by Janet Spencer

Today, it’s generally accepted that neither hand is better or worse, but that each hand has specialized tasks. It’s taken us a long time to conclude that left-handed people are not “sinister.” They are just wired differently. Come along with Tidbits as we use our left hands!


Anthropologists estimate that 1.5 million years ago, 44 percent of early humans were lefties. About 30,000 years ago, during the last ice age, around 23 percent were left-handed. Numbers dropped steadily until about a century ago. A hundred years ago, only two percent of Americans were left-handed. Today, 10 to 12 percent of humans are, though it varies from culture to culture. No scientific study definitively concludes what causes left-handedness. It seems to be a genetic trait, though no single gene has ever been identified. Also, unknown is why the percentage of left-handers shifts between eras and across societies.

• In his book “Right Hand, Left Hand” Chris McManus theorizes that the stigma surrounding left-handedness was enough to prevent many of them from marrying and having children. Without being able to pass on their genes, their numbers declined until the bias began to lift.   

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Through history, lefties have suffered discrimination in most cultures. Even the Bible supports the idea: the favored sit at the right hand of God, while the left is the hand of judgment. In Matthew 25: 32–33, with the sheep representing the “righteous” and the goats representing the fallen, “He shall set the sheep on his right, but the goats on his left.”


The bias against left-handed people has been so pervasive that it shows up in most languages:

• The word “left” comes from the Old English word “lyft” which means “weak.” The word “right” comes from the Old English “rigt” meaning “strong,” “straight,” or “correct.” Usually, the right hand is stronger, and the left is weaker; therefore, the right hand would be the “right” one to use.

• The French word for left “gauche” means clumsy, while the French word for right “droit” gives us “adroit” while “maladroit” means literally “bad right.”

• “Sinister” comes from the Latin “sinistro” which means left. Conversely, the words “dexterous” and “dexterity” spring from the Latin “dexter” meaning right. Even the word “ambidextrous” meaning “skillful on both sides” literally translates as “right-handed on both sides.” The antonym “ambisinistrous” means “left (clumsy) on both sides.”

• In most European languages, the word indicating “right” also means correct or proper, as in the Finnish word “oikea” which means both right (as in correct) and right (as in the opposite of left).

• In Polish, “prawo” means not only right but also lawful, while “lewy” means left.

• The Russian word for left also means strange or counterfeit, and the Russian phrase of doing something “on the left” means illegally or hastily.

The stigma against writing with the left hand was bolstered by several reputed “experts” through the years, particularly one named Austin Palmer. Palmer’s fervor for the correct method of writing began with a man named Platt Spencer.

• Born in New York in 1800, Platt Spencer was an educator known for his treatise on penmanship entitled, “Spencerian or Semi-Angular Penmanship” first published in 1848. The book taught cursive writing that used flourishes and embellishments. This book became the standard model for handwriting for the next half century until Austin Palmer came along.

• Palmer, born in New York in 1860, attended business college and concluded that secretaries and clerks didn’t have time for such fancy writing. In 1901, he published his own book of penmanship called “The Palmer Method of Business Writing.” This system simplified cursive writing, becoming the basis for penmanship throughout the U.S. which is still standard today. In his guidebook, Austin Palmer offered suggestions for left-handed students. However, in his public speeches, he railed against left-handed writing, advocating for forcing lefties to write with their right hand. As a result, schoolteachers whacked the left-hand knuckles of students for decades.

• Celebrated pediatrician Dr. Spock supported Austin Palmer’s disdain for lefties in his best-selling book “Baby and Childcare” released in 1946. The knuckle-smacking continued in schools from coast to coast. By the 1960s, Dr. Spock revised his stance. With Palmer long dead, the discrimination against lefties gradually subsided.

• Still, a study done in 1990 showed that 55% of lefties reported that at some point during their youth, either teachers or parents attempted to coerce them into using their right hand to write.

The percentage of lefties varies around the world. Societies where left-handedness is socially acceptable have more lefties than those who look down on it. About 12% of Americans and Western Europeans are left-handed. That breaks down to 13% of men and 11% of women, since men are slightly more likely than women to be lefties. England reports 11 to 12% lefties, although Wales and Scotland have only 8%. Belgium and neighboring Holland have more than anywhere else in the world, with 15.7%.

• South Korea, Japan, and Taiwan have the fewest with about 2%. However, Japan’s low rate may be due to their writing style, where it’s far easier for a student learning to handle a brush to use the same hand as the teacher demonstrating the complicated strokes. It may also be due to the stigma these countries carry against lefties: is it true that 2% of citizens are left-handed, or is it true that only 2% are willing to admit to it on a questionnaire?

• By studying bone density, arm length, and tool constructions, anthropologists conclude that Neanderthals were predominantly right-handed. Neanderthals left artwork behind that supports this theory. On the wall of the Cave of Maltravieso in Spain, there are 71 hand prints that are about 64,000 years old. They were made by placing one hand against the wall while the pigment was applied by blowing it through a straw held in the opposite hand. Of the 71 handprints, only one is of the right hand, indicating the artists were predominantly right-handed. Likewise, the Cave of the Hands near Santa Cruz, Argentina contains similar stencils of hand prints. The cave walls display 829 left hands and 31 right hands, suggesting that most artists held the paint in their dominant right hand. There’s no way of knowing if the few left-handed artists were embraced by their right-handed clansmen, or if they were ridiculed.