Tuesday, February 1, 2011

This word upsets me

It's not often I get upset about a word. I mean, just about the fact of a word. Use of a word? Sure. But getting mad at a word just for existing? Not often.

Then I found this word:

ambisinister (\ am-bi-SIN-uh-ster \ , adjective)
1. Clumsy or unskillful with both hands.

Yes, the opposite of  "ambidextrous", meaning "skilled with both hands". But literally, "both right-handed".

By contrast, "ambisinister" is "both left-handed".

As someone who is skilled with his left hand, I take offense. Especially since, ironically, I am an ambidextrous fencer that is better with the left hand and strives to bring the right hand up to that standard.

Am I seriously mad about this? Not really. It's always bothered me that "left handed" became a synonym for evil. The French gauche comes from "left" and means "awkward or lacking social grace". And given how many people have been tortured throughout the ages into being right handed, and the developmental issues that followed, this is obviously more than a semantic issue.

It's also an interesting reminder of how fundamentally some of our prejudices are worked into our language. Many of these words have lost their original sting now, many generations later, when the original slur is forgotten and the word has taken on new and independent life, but it is still an interesting inheritance. Grade school teachers no longer force students to use their right hands in penmanship classes, but students that do well with either hand are still said to write with their left as if it were their right.

So what do we do now when we find these words? Remove them? Change them? Shrug and move on? It's a linguistic version of the issue many countries face: our land was taken from these indigenous people by force, decades or centuries ago, but now there is a new nation built upon that spot with history and culture of its own. Do we uproot and destroy it to right the wrong done by our ancestors to yours? Or just accept that our country was built on blood, and strive to do better in the future?

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