Back in our schooldays, how many of us didn't learn to tell left from right by saying the right hand was right to write with, while the other was what was left?
The notion that right is right seems to have been deeply rooted in western culture for a very long time. But not only there—throughout Africa and South Asia the right hand is used to handle food, while the left hand is reserved for less clean activities.
Already at the time of the Roman empire, the Latin word for right or right hand, dexter, also meant handy or skillful. This positive connotation eventually found its way into English in the form of the noun dexterity and the adjective dexterous.
According to Norman Lewis in his now classic vocabulary builder Word Power Made Easy:
"The right hand is traditionally the more skillful one; it is only within recent decades that we have come to accept that 'lefties' or 'southpaws' are just as normal as anyone else—and the term left-handed is still used as a synonym of awkward.
"The Latin word for the left hand is sinister. This same word, in English, means threatening, evil, or dangerous, a further commentary on our early suspiciousness of left-handed persons..."
"The French word for the left hand is gauche, and, as you would suspect, when we took this word over into English we invested it with an uncomplimentary meaning. Call someone gauche and you imply clumsiness, generally social rather than physical. (We're right back to our age-old misconception that left-handed people are less skillful than right-handed ones.)
"A gauche remark is tactless; a gauche offer of sympathy is so bumbling as to be embarrassing; gaucherie is an awkward, clumsy, tactless, embarrassing way of saying things or of handling situations. The gauche person is totally without finesse.
"And the French word for the right hand is droit, which we have used in building our English word adroit. Needless to say, adroit, like dexterous, means skillful, but especially in the exercise of the mental facilities. Like gauche, adroit, or its noun adroitness, usually is used figuratively. The adroit person is quick-witted, can get out of difficult spots cleverly, can handle situations ingeniously. Adroitness is, then, quite the opposite of gaucherie."
Notice how adroitly Mr. Lewis steers us clear of leftist politics, ha ha!
His bestselling 500-page digest is a timeless treasure-trove of etymological information, and outstanding value at a list price of just $8.09.