Thursday, August 30, 2007

lefties and righties

Joe e-mailed to ask:
I understand that in Great Britain the terms lefty and righty refer to people's political leanings and not their handedness as in the U.S. Is this true, and if so how do the British refer to a left-handed or right-handed person, especially in the context of sports (which is where the issue most often arises here)?
That's mostly true, Joe. Better Half, an avid cricket fan, reports that left-handed batsmen (NB: batter, as in baseball, is AmE, though it's gaining frequency in the UK to refer to cricket players--much to many fans' horror) are referred to as left-handed batsmen. One can also in BrE and AmE call such a person a left-hander. (There are much more derogatory/slang terms--see below.) Most AmE speakers wouldn't think of the diminutive lefty as derogative; in fact, they may consider it to be affectionate. While lefty/righty as handedness labels are found in BrE as well as AmE, they are not used so freely in that way.

Originally from AmE in reference to baseball, we get the slang term southpaw, which has been populari{s/z}ed world-wide through boxing. (Northpaw for right-handers is markedly less common.) It's sometimes considered to be a bit derogatory, particularly since it refers to a human by the name of an animal body part. But as derogatory epithets go, it's got nothing on some of those listed for BrE here. (I'm sure there must be a similar list for AmE, but I'm not finding it--might any of you lefties know?)

As BrE political terms, lefty (also leftie) and the less-common righty (or rightie) are not particularly derogatory either--though, like any epithet, they could be used with belittling intent. Better Half asked me how an American would refer to a socialist, if not by lefty. An awful lot of Americans would probably answer pinko, which is rarely used without derogatory intent and is frequently used in phrases like pinko-commie bastard. The fact of the matter is, while it would be unsurprising and not insulting in the UK to refer to some (certainly not all!) members of the current party in power (Labour) as 'good old socialists', there are few localities in America (Vermont comes to mind) where one could publicly use the word good to modify socialist and not start a fight. Most AmE nicknames for political positions are derogatory or extreme. The most neutral terms are probably left-winger and right-winger, but of course these days almost everyone likes to claim to be 'moderate' or 'middle-of-the-road', etc. Twenty years ago, liberal became a word that was considered a label of shame or an accusation for even the "non-conservative" candidates in the US. (That was back in my student-politico days. The Young Republicans --one of whom recently went to prison in the Abramoff scandal [so there!]-- used to do the L-for-Loser sign on their foreheads while chanting "Liberal" at my colleagues and me.) Conservative has not suffered the same fate in the States. Nor should it--it's a useful word, which makes the 'loss' of liberal as a usable political description all the more sad.

24 comments:

Canadian said...

I'm not sure why there is this aversion to "liberal" in the States. I find it odd. Many people who reject it are liberal in their outlook. Here in Canada liberal is the name of a party so it doesn't get used as much in an ideological sense. I call myself a "social democrat" (which means I don't want to come right out and say "socialist"!).

Meg said...

In the Reagan and first-Bush eras, the use of "liberal" as a perjorative was quite deliberately engineered by conservatives. I have no idea why the liberals rolled over and accepted this.

Peter said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Peter said...

The usual word for somebody who is left handed is-wait for it-“left-handed”. However there are many dialect words and my grandfather,a Norfolkman used to call me “cack-handed”. It was only now after looking it up on the web I realised the origin, so I hope my grandfather was unaware!
http://www.worldwidewords.org/qa/qa-cac1.htm

Cameron said...

I myself, in Glasgow, western Scotland, am proud to be corrie fisted, indeed to be a corrie fister. I have never heard this used in any way other than affectionately, but in ways which I think made it clear that it was a word which once was a serious insult. Up here, though, we also have left footers. A left footer is a Catholic, supposedly from the "fact" that Irish potato diggers used their left foot to push their shovels into the ground whereas any decent person would naturally use their right foot. It is still occasionally said here that some person or other "kicks with the wrong foot," meaning to be of the wrong religious persuasion (vis a vis Protestant or Catholic), which seems to come from the religious rivalry (now thankfully diminishing) between Rangers and Celtic football clubs.

Rebecca said...

My grandfather - a Yorkshireman through and through - always called me 'cack-handed' and 'southpaw' - southpaw because of the boxing connotations - he was an ex boxer.

lynneguist said...

Cack-handed and others that have been mentioned are listed, with regional origins, at the site that I link to in the entry (where it says 'some of those listed for BrE here).

bill said...

Actually I am surprised that people consider liberal a negative. I, and my friends and most everyone I know, accept Liberal as a fact indicating "leftist" politics. Conservatives seem to be the only ones that use it as a negative.
Go to any social networking site like Facebook or Myspace and any question indicating political views usually ask "Liberal or Conservative?"
In fact, this site is the first and only place I have seen the indication that Liberal is not embraced, partially if not fully...and I work in Washington DC.

lynneguist said...

The Reagan-era effects of the 'liberal' label may be wearing off, but if you click on the link "a label of shame or an accusation" in the entry, you'll be taken to a Washington Post discussion of the issue.

mollymooly said...

As per Cameron, "lefty" is now a usually-facetious pejorative for "Protestant" used by Catholics in the Republic of Ireland. I don't know whether this is usable in polite company in Northern Ireland, or whether something like "righty" would be understood in the opposite sense. Spades in nineteenth-century Ireland were usually asymmetric, with the handle usually fixed to the right side of the blade in the (mainly Protestant) north, causing diggers to press down with the left foot; conversely in the Catholic south.

In Europe generally, liberal refers to the kind of political view or party called "libertarian" in America, or "neo-liberal" by socialist opponents. In Britain the Liberal Party started out like this, but drifted leftwards as its commercial base jumped over to the Conservative party. It is now called the Liberal Democratic Party.

Further left, the distinctions between "social democrat", "socialist" and "communist" have never been widely appreciated in America; but are now less relevant in Europe than in the Cold War.

bill said...

Yes, that is true...Kerry's labeling as Liberal did hurt him...but mainly with the Conservative crowd, which came out in droves to vote becasue of it. Liberal is considered dangerous by conservatives...but is not shunned by the leftist groups, the only reason to hide from the moniker is to avoid hurting your chances with conservative voters, and that lies purely within the realm of "Politics" as opposed to everyday life. In fact, after more years of Bush's white house, I would wager that "liberal" is making a comeback in direct opposition. The fact that a formidable presidential ticket made up of a woman and a black man is a very real possibility shows this. I doubt that Kerry/Edwards will look like the most liberal ticket for much longer.
The problem is that noone wants to be called "A Liberal" because that hints at the more extreme side of things. Just like noone wants to be called "A Conservative". However if you ask someone about their political views, I feel that the general one-word answer would either be "Liberal" or "Conservative"
I think it falls into your assertion that all epithets can be used in a negative, not in a negative association with the word itself. I was only 12 when Reagan left office of course so I don't know how it was...

Erin said...

I've heard "leftist" used pejoratively here, too, presumably the "ist" is to signal the association with socialism. And "rightist" does not work.

Joe said...

If liberal first started taking a negative meaning 20 years ago in America, how do we explain the following lines from Supertramp's The Logical Song?

"Now watch what you say or they´ll be calling you a radical, a liberal, oh fanatical, criminal."

Supertramp was a British band and the song was released in 1979.

lynneguist said...

As has been said above, ANY epithet can be used in a pejorative way, given the right context/intention. That's a case in point. Associating it with a negative presupposition "Watch what you say or" and with more extreme and negative terms "radical, fanatical, criminal" makes it clear that it was intended as a pejorative there (kind of...of course the greater message in the song is that "they" are messed up in "their" ideas).

Simon Buck said...

As far as 'left-footer' is concerned, I had to put up with being labelled as such in the City (London's financial district) in the 80s - where, despite the fact that most of the people working there believed in Mammon rather than any deity, the overarching and inherent English hatred of Catholics ever since the government fitted up Guy Fawkes was firmly entrenched in the secular establishment. So it's not just used in Glasgow and Northern Ireland!

janes_kid said...

Onelook.com reverse dictionary has "sinistral" as number five for "left-handed" when sorted by relatedness. I don't recall ever seeing it before and as best I can tell it is not among the comments here.

lynneguist said...

Sinistral is not BrE- or AmE-specific--it's just a rare, technical word.

Roger Green said...

The U.S. Democrats are STILL afraid of the "liberal" label, which means, as defined by the opposition, big govt, weak on defense.

Ginger Yellow said...

"cack handed" more often means "clumsy" in my circles. I'm not sure which meaning came first. That said, none of the derogatory terms in your linked list are familiar to me, so I'm not much use as a source.

strawman said...

Liberal featured as Chambers Dictionary's Word of the Week early last year.

lynneguist said...

Nice description of the transatlantic differences--thanks, Straw.

ally said...

gingeryellow - I'm pretty sure cack-handed = clumsy and cack-handed = left-handed are kinda closely related. Left-handed types are supposed to be more clumsy than right-handers (maybe because, like, everything is designed for right-handed people). I have a friend who is VERY rude about left-handedness, and she always calls me cack-handed, yet she is WAY clumsier than i am. (I have a left-handed sleeping bag, which i must admit is ridiculous.)

I'm British, and i don't like it when people ask me if i'm a lefty, because i get confused about whether they want a conversation about something important, or about which hand i write with. I don't think i've heard people use righty to refer to people of a right-wing political persuasion though.

Chris said...

I'm surprised no one from the US chimed in with the AmE word for a socialist: leftist.

I frequently call myself a lefty when the subject comes up in conversation, so I'm never offended when someone refers to me that way.

Chris said...

Ok, I should have read more carefully. A few people mentioned 'leftist'...my bad ;)