Vive la difference?

I was pootling around in a bookshop this afternoon, while my prescription was turned from being two boxes of pills into … two boxes of pills with stickers on … and heard a young girl ask her father what ambidextrous means.

Quick as a flash, he answered neatly and calmly, saying something like ‘Being neither right nor left-handed, but being equally skilled with both hands’. Good job, I thought, but then thought some more.

It doesn’t mean quite what he said, but contains an odd bias.

Ambi means something like ‘on both sides’ while dextrous means ‘like the right hand’, seeing as dexter is the right hand (sinister being the left).

Ambidextrous therefore, if one translates it literally, means ‘on both sides like the right hand’, or, more simply and poetically, ‘having two right hands’.

It is therefore the antithesis of being a bad dancer.

Now, I found it interesting that a word which relates to the equality of two parties can only express it in terms of the party considered superior.

Or, in the words of Rex Harrisson, ‘why can’t a woman, be more like a man?’

This either indicates an intrinsic dualism in language, a dualism which supports if not impels discriminatory behaviour, or suggests that equality is neither desirable or, in fact, possible.

Vive la différence?

2 thoughts on “Vive la difference?

  1. This made me look up ‘dexter’ in a Latin dictionary to double-check whether what was stored away in some corner of my mind was true (it is): ‘dexter’ does not only refer to the right side, but also means ‘skilled at’ and even ‘bringing good luck’. And ‘sinister’ obviously also means ‘evil’ or ‘bad’ in Latin. So that particular bias goes back a long way.

    The bias does not exist in all languages, though. In German, the word we use for someone equally skilled with both hands is ‘beidhändig’, which literally means ‘both-handed’. So we do not have the same bias here, although we surely have others. And the ‘right’ = ‘good’ and ‘left’ = ‘bad’ idea probably does not exist in other language families (e.g. I do not see that in the Semitic languages to the extent I know them).

    Came across your blog via the Guardian, have done quite a bit of reading here for (over?) the past few days. Impressed and touched by content and language in equal measure.

    Not being a native speaker, I had to look up what feels like dozens of English words and expressions I appear not to have read or heard anywhere else and was very happy to discover quite a number of other words so far not known to me. The way you use the language, it become elegant and beautiful (which is not what I tthink about the English language normally. My mistake obviously – apparently need to re-think what texts to read).

    Thank you for all the thoughts and the time and energy you must have put in this blog – I will gladly read more if there is more. All the best for all your endeavours.

    • Ah, yes, I was playing on the dual meaning here, but there’s not a lot more to say to your comment other than thank you!

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