Language and ‘Ambisinister’

08:55 Thu 31 May 2007
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I have a mild objection to the term “ambidextrous”, because I consider it prejudiced—dexter is Latin for “right”, so etymologically ambidextrous means “two right hands” or “both hands like the right hand” or “right-handed on both sides”. Hence I often use the terms “ambisinister” or “ambisinstrous”. Imagine my surprise upon reading the Wikipedia Handedness article and discovering that those terms were already in use—they’d already been appropriated to further anti-lefty prejudice!

According to that article:

People who demonstrate awkwardness with both hands are said to be ambilevous or ambisinister. Ambisinistrous motor skills or a low level of dexterity may be the result of a debilitating physical condition.

Let me be clear: I don’t really think there’s significant anti-left-hander prejudice in the modern West*. But even so, the presumption and arrogance here is rather appalling. The association of lefties with clumsiness seems to be common in a lot of cultures (ciotóg in Irish, and to an extent gauche meaning “awkward”, and I’ve heard many other examples over the years that I can’t recall right now), but to use that in medical terminology seems a little too much. The assumption of right-handed “normality” seems relatively forgivable; the formal association of left-handedness with impaired performance is rather less so.

The association with clumsiness, of course, comes from lefties trying to use right-handed tools, or from trying to learn complex motor skills from people doing them with the other hand. Lefties may in fact have better motor skills than right-handers. The “clumsy” tag is clearly inaccurate, and permitting it to stick around in the terminology is annoying.

Naturally, one may ask if I’m taking “political correctness” to an absurd extreme here, in being oversensitive to the language, language that most speakers don’t even realize comes from terms denoting handedness. It’s actually an interesting question. I don’t feel insulted if someone refers to me as ambidextrous (usually “fairly ambidextrous” or “kind of ambidextrous”). But I will usually point out the underlying prejudice in the language. Is the argument for letting it go that there’s too little harm involved in the use of the terms to justify the effort involved in altering them? That could be true. Nevertheless, I feel somehow icky in acquiescing to the dictionary definition of “ambisinister”/”ambisinstrous”. Partly because I use those terms myself already with different meanings, and partly because they’re not at all common terms, with deep roots in common parlance. For the vast majority of people, my non-prejudicial definition of “left-handed on both sides” makes perfect sense. Insisting on my own definition seems here far less a case of a foolish quest to change an everyday word for no reason, and more a case of consciously rejecting the authority of the dictionary and choosing my own (etymologically correct, I might add) alternative for the the word(s).

Doing that kind of thing raises many questions about language, of course, and its status as (among other things) a quasi-democratic game whose rules and pieces we (meaning us and our culture) change over time. Quite apart from any issues related directly to handedness, the kind of redefinition maneuver I refer to above is an assertion that I understand at least some of the language game better than other players—or, perhaps, that I understand the yet-deeper game of determining what the game should be better than other players. Any kind of linguistic instruction has such an assertion hidden in it, but I wonder if English as a language has more of these, and more room for disagreement on what constitutes “proper English”, and hence more players choosing their own set of rules, asserting that their set is superior to other rulesets—each a claim of “I know what’s best for the language”.

Well, perhaps not. Perhaps each individual ruleset is a claim of “I know what version of the language is best for me”. It moves towards absolutism when it’s advanced over someone else’s ruleset. But some variants seem clearly wrong, such as those inadvertently used by non-native speakers, and it’s hardly arrogance to help them along toward the right ones (at least presumably not when they want that help… arrogance is of course in the eye of the beholder). The problem is in distinguishing between variations that are clearly “wrong” and those that are simply different. Is “ain’t” wrong? Is it “got” or “gotten”, “lit” or “lighted”, “traveler” or “traveller”, “a historic event” or “an historic event”? How should you pronounce “either”? Context can get you out of some of those, but context can drift towards deligitimization—the words you wouldn’t use when writing professionally, for example, clearly lose legitimacy compared to those that you would.

In any case, I choose not to relinquish my claim on “ambisinister”. It means “left-handed on both sides”, with no connotations of clumsiness attached to “left-handed” except those brought by individuals themselves, and I grant little legitimacy to the medical definition that caters to medieval prejudices—that definition is archaic and outmoded, and those who need it can find another term to use for “awkward with both hands”.

*Of course, having never lived in anything but a world dominated by right-handers, I could be blind to a lot of it, and it’s possible that all kinds of prejudice floats by me, unnoticed…

One Response to “Language and ‘Ambisinister’”

  1. Paul English Says:

    Hey Tadhg

    Some good points to ponder there.

    Looking at form and style of your fiction pieces, I’m transported to those faraway Wednesday evenings in UCD at English Literary Society meetings. Almost 15 years ago now….

    Hope you’re keeping well. Good to see that you’re still writing.


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