I finally learned how to say leftie in French. And it turns out none of my French professors ever got the translation exactly right.
I’ve never actually heard anyone use the word gauche in English, but I have many adult friends who swear they once knew someone who used the word all the time. It’s the type of word that someone might think makes them sound intelligent, clever or posh. The word reflects perfectly on anyone who would use it: it means, in my own words, the quality of being out of touch. It describes a person who acts in a way which, in being odd, makes others uncomfortable. The word comes from French, and thus is pronounced with an “o” sound, as is “no,” and a “sh” sound. It is the root of the French word gaucheur—the main topic of this blog post.
As the French translation of left, as in left hand, my initial interest in the word was figuring out how to alter it to translate to left-handed. That was before I learned the connotation of gauche in English, and began unpacking the significance of assigning such a characteristic to people who favor their left hand. In English and French, it is implied that lefties are subordinate; they are associated with being unsavory in French and simply unimportant in English.
The parallel across English and French brings the negative connotation into sharp relief. It is a reminder that lefties have often been subject to discrimination—I even know some people in my generation who were forced to switch the hand holding their pen in kindergarten. And there is a further parallel: the opposite translation in both languages means “right.” Someone, sometime, thought that my preference for holding my pen in my left hand was the opposite of “right.”
On the other hand (I was never going to make it through this post without using that phrase), being left-handed is no longer seen as a flaw by our society. Being gaucheure (the translation for left-handed) is likewise recognized as a physical trait, not a character trait.
More than anything, it gives lefties a fun topic on which to rant. Our minor inconveniences, such as the dominance of right-handed scissors, is something we can bond over. In fact, when attempting to describe the experience of being left-handed to my host mother in my imperfect French, I landed on, “It’s a great fraternity.”
The significance, at the end of the day, is historical. (No one burns lefties as witches anymore.) But there is a broad-scale question that I cannot answer definitively, and so will pose here: Can biases imbedded in a word’s creation influence perceptions of that word, and the thing it represents, generations later?