Left, right, left, right.

Posted by on May 14, 2012

The Eurozone crisis claimed another victim on 6 May when Nicolas Sarkozy became the eleventh European political leader to lose his job since 2008. His opponent, François Hollande, has become only the second socialist president of the French Fifth Republic. This change of presidency has been seen by some as a “lurch to the left”.

Meanwhile, in the UK, “David Cameron is facing pressure from Conservative MPs to “lurch to the right” following his party’s disastrous results in the local elections” according to heraldscotland.com.

But why left, why right?

In common with many frequent words, the words left and right have more than one meaning. As well as referring to the side that is east when you are facing north, right can also mean, among other things,  “correct”, “morally correct”, “immediately” or “completely”.

Left is not quite so rich – apart from its directional meaning, it is the past tense and past participle of the verb to leave. But both words are used to signify a particular political position.

If we want to know why François Hollande should represent the “left” and David Cameron the “right”, we have to go back over 200 years, to the Assemblée Nationale in France round about the time of the Revolution in 1789. The members sat then (as they still do today) in a semicircular chamber, facing the president of the Assembly. The position of honour was on the president’s right and was occupied by the nobles, while to his left were the commoners. Politically, the nobles were staunch supporters of the church, the king and the existing constitution, while the commoners were more likely to be anti-church, anti-royalist and in favour of overthrowing the constitution. In between them sat the moderates. So the right came to represent those political parties that favour continuity and stability (as they see it) while the left represents radical parties of change.

In the UK, such a distinction could not have been made, as the elected representatives sat facing each other in an adversarial configuration, and although the Speaker has the governing party on his or her right and the opposition on his or her left, the disposition of these parties will depend on who is in government at any one time. And in fact, it wasn’t until about 1906 that the terms left and right started being applied to British politics, when the Labour Party became a third force in national politics, joining the previously duopolistic Conservatives and Liberals to create more of a political spectrum.

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Comments (5)
  • But why did the nobles sit on the right, and the commoners on the left? Could it equally well have been the other way round? Well, no, actually; that would have been unlikely.

    Interesting words, left and right. ‘Left’, as a directional term, is unrelated to ‘left’ as the past tense / participle of ‘leave’. But the directional and political senses of left, and the current diverse meanings of ‘right’, can all be traced back to a basic perception about the human body.

    For more about this, see http://www.macmillandictionaries.com/MED-Magazine/March2005/28-Feature-Rights.htm

    Posted by Jonathan Marks on 14th May, 2012
  • Thanks, Jonathan. You’re right (!), it probably couldn’t have been the other way round given the long historical associations of “right” with all things positive. In the Bible, we’re told that Jesus sits at the right hand side of God. Is that because the right hand side was already seen favourably, or is that configuration yet another reason for the right being seen as a position of honour?

    Posted by Stephen on 15th May, 2012
  • Well, it seems that “Left is wrong, right is right” isn’t a construct of Christianity. It’s widespread – although not entirely universal – throughout the cultures of the world. But where Christianity became accepted, Biblical references (another one is in Ecclesiastes 10:2: “A wise man’s heart is at his right hand; but a fool’s heart at his left”) must have been high-grade grist to a mill that was already grinding.
    And as to the consequences, the question of who gets to sit where in a parliament is – although certainly of interest – a rather trivial one in comparison with the experience of left-handed children having their left hand tied behind their back so that they’d be forced to use their right hand for writing and other tasks.

    Posted by Jonathan Marks on 15th May, 2012
  • […] In politics, Mighty Red Pen red-lined Mitt Romney’s grammar (mmm, pizza magnet); John Edwards’s defense team relied on the definition of the; and Barbara Partee at Language Log delved into weak definites. Meanwhile, at the Macmillan Dictionary blog, Stephen Bullon explained the origins of the left and the right. […]

    Posted by This Week’s Language Blog Roundup | Wordnik on 18th May, 2012
  • […] from the Assemblée National in France, just prior to the time of the French Revolution in 1789, Essentially, the nobles (in favor of continuity and stability -supporters of the church, king and co… The question, of course, is why did the nobles sit to the right of the […]

    Posted by Where do our ideas of ‘Left’ and ‘Right’ come from? | Cybject on 29th March, 2013
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