The Strange Etymologies of 'the Left,' 'Liberals,' 'Progressives' and 'Red Parties' (Part I)

By Luis Martínez-Fernández

May 15, 2021 5 min read

Languages, especially their vocabularies, are in constant flux. Like living organisms, they are born and evolve. And although some, such as English, seem immortal, they also die.

New, updated editions of dictionaries include neologisms. This year, for example, Merriam-Webster added 520 new words ranging from BIPOC, abbreviation of "Black, Indigenous, People of Color" to — news to me — "hygge," "a cozy quality that makes a person feel content and comfortable." Even more common is the addition of new meanings for words that already exist: "tweet" or "mouse," to name but two.

Political terminology is no exception. Take the words "the left," "liberal" and "progressive," which, in the United States, are often used interchangeably.

The word "left," which Republicans so liberally (as in often) hurled at Democrats during the 2020 electoral campaign, has had an interesting trajectory, from exclusively signifying location and direction (as in "to one's left") to a political and ideological term often used derogatorily, referring to something evil or sinister. The Latin word for left is "sinister."

Long before "left" and its counterpart words in many other languages had any political meaning or connotation, it was associated with misfortune and the unfavorable. In ancient Greek augury rituals, omens appearing on the left side or direction — flying birds, for example — were portents of calamity and harm. Thus, sinister also came to mean inauspicious, adverse and improper. By the dawn of the modern age, the concept of "the left" had taken on even graver connotations of evil and immorality.

The gospel narrations of the crucifixion tell us that two thieves were crucified along with Christ — "one on the right hand, and another on the left" — and that one rejected Christ's offer of salvation and the other repented. While the Bible does not say which one was on what side, tradition places the unrepentant thief squarely on the left.

As seen in many cultures around the world, not just in the West, the words for "left" are also associated with weakness, lack of skill and awkwardness. Since only 10% of the world's population is left-handed, the left hand and leftness were connected to difficulty and being unskilled, in contraposition to the right hand and those who are right-handed. The adjective "dextrous" (or "dexterous") comes from the Latin word "dexter," which, since ancient times, has had three different meanings: "located on the right," "skillful" and "south." In the United States, left-handed baseball pitchers are commonly referred to as "southpaws," but that has nothing to do with ancient Rome.

The French word for "left" ("gauche") also means "awkwardness." Curiously, "gauche" is also an English word, but when it crossed the English Channel — or is it the French Channel? — it only retained the awkward part of its definition. The word "adroit," meanwhile, from the French "droit" ("on or of the right"), means "physically skillful and smart."

So when, where and how did words for "left" acquire their current political meaning? The year was 1789. Paris was ablaze with revolutionary fervor, and a new government formed around a powerful legislative body called National Assembly.

While the crown, the nobility and the church hierarchy deemed revolutionaries forbearers of calamity, agents of evil and perhaps even awkward, the new meaning of "left" was the result of a historical accident. When the assembly convened, radical anti-monarchists sat on the left (from the perspective of the assembly president), while monarchists sat on the right. That is when "gauche" also came to mean political radicalism defined as revolutionary, anti-monarchical and somewhat egalitarian positions — a new meaning that spread in French and later in English newspapers and magazines.

It took much longer for the political definition of "left" to cross the Atlantic. The first edition of Webster's Dictionary, published in 1828, includes the location definition ("as the left hand, arm or side") and attributions such as weak, deficient, sinister and unfortunate, but there is no mention of political orientation.

It would take another century for "the left" to reach the United States, both as a common political term and actual political practice, during the 1930s in the midst of the Great Depression.

To be continued.

Readers can reach Luis Martinez-Fernandez at [email protected] To find out more about Luis Martinez-Fernandez and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.

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