what are human rights

What Are Human Rights? (43): A Bit of Etymology

Left, Right & Wrong, 2011, by Haavard Pedersen

Left, Right & Wrong, 2011, by Haavard Pedersen


There’s an interesting story to tell about the word “right”. It’s of course a homonym. The word has at least three completely different meanings:

  • right as opposed to left
  • right in the sense of correct (“consonance with facts and reality”)
  • and, obviously, right as an entitlement or moral title, i.e. a moral claim or a legally permitted action grounded in a moral claim.

However, these meanings, although apparently unrelated, have a common core:

How did it come to mean “the opposite of left” and also “something to which one is legally, morally or naturally entitled”?  This wouldn’t be so weird—words have multiple meanings all the time—except that Spanish “derecho”, French “droit”, Portuguese “direito”, German “Recht” and other words all carry the same double-meaning. In German, you can also say “Du hast Recht”, “you’re right”, so “Recht-recht-recht” has the same triple meaning in German as “right” (entitlement), “right” (not left) and “right” (correct) in English. In Slavic languages, the correct/not-left/entitlement words also share the same root (“prav”), which yields Russian “pravda” (“truth”) to boot. The connections between the different senses of “right” are old, and deep.

What links all the words? The answer is a sense of naturalness, appropriateness, correctness. In a world where goodness (right) prevails, people will get what they are morally due (their rights), and will be correct (right) in their thinking and doing. …

Where does the not-left meaning come in? Simply, as the OED explains, because the right hand is the stronger and more appropriate one for most people to use for most tasks. Tellingly, the word “leftin several languages is cognate to English sinister, like “sinistra” in Italian. In many cultures, including non-European ones, the left hand is considered debased, suspicious, perhaps appropriate only for dirty tasks. (Items should not be handed over or received with the left hand in many Asian cultures, for example.) “Left” itself in English comes from a root meaning “weak” and so, in some contexts, “worthless”.

With all this history, it’s no surprise that left-handers have long found the world less than congenial. The Wikipedia article on “Bias against left-handed people” is thousands of words long. (source)

I’m surprised this isn’t a more common line of attack in politics.

More posts in this series are here.