Le cul entre les deux chaises

An American Spaniard in France or: How I Learned to Make an Ass of Myself in Three Cultures

Word Mystery: left / izquierda / gauche


Every Wednesday, I explore the linguistic origins of one word in different languages I speak.

Everything about this pic from Wikipedia is funny to me, esp. her leopard-print shirt.

Everything about this pic from Wikipedia is funny to me, esp. her leopard-print shirt.

Spell It Out by David Crystal is so good, you guys.   If I could, I’d pull almost all the text and reproduce it for you. Every page has at least five interesting things on it that I didn’t know and some pages are non-stop knowledge (like the section detailing where each letter of the English alphabet came from).

But copying the book and pasting it onto this blog would be theft of a kind I don’t promote. Instead, I’ll tell you how I got to today’s Word Mystery while reading Crystal’s opus on orthography.

I was learning that in Old English, every letter was pronounced and that the OE word laf meant “remainder” and I thought, “So *that’s* where that meaning of left comes from ’cause it never did make any sense to me” and then *that’s* when I realized that “left” is a total Word Mystery and that I needed to get it sorted right away.

EN → left — on, toward, or relating to the side of a human body or of a thing that is to the west when the person or thing is facing north. ORIGIN Old English lyft [weak] (the left-hand side being regarded as the weaker side of the body).

ES → izquierdaDicho de una parte del cuerpo humano: Que está situada en el lado del corazón. [Said of a part of the human body which is on the side of the heart.] ORIGIN Basque ezkerra.

FR → gaucheSe dit de toute partie du corps qui, pour un individu, est située du côté de son cœur. [Is said of all parts of the body which, per the individual, is situated on the side of the heart.] ORIGIN Unclear, though it was changed from senestre circa the 15th century. 


First off: the English definition is amazing for being both a totally logical way of describing “left” and also totally Anglo-centric as the English-speaking peoples love cardinal directions so much.

Secondly: Basque, known as Euskara to those who speak it and to the rest of the Iberian peninsula, is the most fascinating language I’ve ever encountered since it has no known connection to any other language. That means that the roots to its words are never Latin. Or Germanic. Or even Hebrew. They up and grew their own way of talking, making them total badasses.

Thirdly: Both Spanish and French describe “left” relative to the placement of the human heart which I guess means that they didn’t have dextrocardia in either country but still knew enough about human anatomy to know where the heart was. 

Fourthly: the French origin is unknown?! What kind of evil is this?

Fifth: I know what kind of evil — the Italian kind! The word for “left” in Italian is sinistra which comes from Latin sinister [left] but from which the regular kind of “sinister” also came because there’s something evil about the left-hand side. (I’m too tired to dig into this more, but I guess it’s something to do with God or Jesus or an old pope or something Catholic for sure.)

Today’s Winner: HOWCANICHOOSE? I can not.

Author: le cul en rows

I'm an American Spaniard, living in France. I like to tell stories.

7 thoughts on “Word Mystery: left / izquierda / gauche

  1. Oh! Book recommendation. Win! Thanks! Explain later!

    Oh alright, birthday present for someone coming up and he’ll love it. That didn’t take as long as I thought it would.

  2. Spanish wins for me because it’s the most fun to say.

  3. Loved Spell It Out. Glad to see another recommendation.

    • Take a look at BANANA first before committing, obviously. To me, it’s the same kind of “the story behind the thing you thought you know” that Mark Kurlansky specializes in, though others may not make the same connection.

      And if you’ve got any good grammar/vocab books, please pass along suggestions!

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