Monday, April 30, 2012

Apple #580: Trillium

I have always liked the trillium flowers. They grow wild near where I grew up, and my dad is always so delighted when they appear in the spring. In recent years, any time I've come across them in the woods, I've taken a picture or two. I never knew anyone else was as fond of them until the past few days, when I ran across two people talking about them. So it's time I did an Apple on trillium.

White trillium. Note the three petals and the three leaves. 
 (Photo by the Apple Lady)

  • The first question is, what is the plural of trillium? 
  • It's a Latin word and the way the Latin works, the plural would be trillia. However, the word has been adapted to English usage, and the way English works, plurals are made (generally speaking) by adding an -s. Therefore, the plural of trillium is trilliums. 
  • Some people do use the word trillium as either singular or plural. Trilliums sounds weird to me, so I'm going with trillium all the way. 

The petals and leaves in threes are more obvious here.
(Photo by the Apple Lady)

  • Trillium are members of the lily family.  I've never thought lilies smelled very good, and trillium are no different. They're pretty stinky. The stink is off-putting to us, but insects love the smell. To them, it smells like something rotting and therefore something good to eat. So they show up, looking for food, and wind up collecting all sorts of pollen. Clever stinky trillium.
  • They are so stinky that in fact, one common name for trillium is Stinking Benjamin.
  • You might think that name comes from a reference to some guy named Ben who was especially ripe, but the origin is not so colorful.  The name is actually a mis-pronunciation of another word benzoin, which is itself a corruption of another word, benjoin, which was an essence derived from plants in Sumatra to make perfume.
  • The essence of our fair trillium is pretty stinky, so it was distinguished from its sweeter-smelling benjoin providers with the moniker Stinking.
  • Yet another name for trillium is birthroot. People usually use this name to refer to the red varieties of trillium.

Red trillium, sometimes called birthroot, sometimes also called Stinking Benjamin.
(Photo from the Adirondack Almanack)

  • Birthroot was used in native medicine at the time of birth to stop excessive bleeding. It was also used for other women's health purposes, such as soothing tender nipples and other menstrual discomforts, and treating bleeding related to uterine fibroids.  Native healers also applied it topically to treat headaches, sunburn, and acne.
  • Yet another common name for trillium is the wake-robin.  Europeans thought the trillium was the same as a plant back home by that name. They were mistaken, but the name here has stuck. The name indicates that the flowers are sighted around the same time that the first robins of spring appear. 

 A pink trillium -- or would you say purple?
(Photo by the Apple Lady)

  • They like to grow in the shade, which means they thrive in wooded areas. People say that they grow in the East or Midwest, but according to the USDA, some variety of trillium grows in every state of the country except Nevada, Utah, Arizona, and New Mexico. 
  • Their roots are actually underground rhizomes, so they can spread to form a dense mat.  Pale yellow ones used to grow all across one part of our lawn in the spring time. Then the gas company came and tore up the yard to put in a gas line, and after that the trillium didn't come up anymore. That's why I'm always so happy to see them. 
  • I had always thought they only grew wild, but you can purchase trillium plants from some nurseries. All of my photos of trillium were taken in April. So it seems that, where I live, that's where they bloom. Even this year, when it seems that everything bloomed early.  

Here's a white variety with wavy petals. 
I took this photo toward the end of April, 
when the flowers were starting to turn brown and wilt.
(Photo by the Apple Lady)

  • After the flowers fade, red or purple seed-berries form.  The seeds get distributed by ants.

Seed-berry of a red trillium.
(Photo by Ron P. Metcalfe at PBase)

  • By the way, it's best not to pick the trillium. They bruise easily so the flower won't look very pretty after you've picked it, and the plant will also be damaged and won't fare so well after the picking.

John Switzer, Trillium's beauty belies its odor, Columbus Dispatch, April 29, 2012
Choosing Voluntary Simplicity, Red Trillium, Trillium 
fine Gardening, How to Grow Trilliums
USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service, Plants Profile, Trillium
Macphail Woods Ecological Forestry Project, The Trilliums

Monday, April 16, 2012

Apple #579: Graphology

As you may recall, a while ago Daily Apple reader Roxanne asked me a question about graphology. Specifically, she said she'd heard that "left-sloping handwriting means you can't trust someone" and she wanted to know if this is true, or was that related to a more general bad opinion about people who are left-handed. I investigated various facts about left-handedness and we found out that left-handed people are no better or worse than the rest of us. So now I'm ready to tackle the other part of her question, about left-sloping handwriting, and what that means.

Example of left-slanted handwriting
(Image from Michelle Dresbold's site)

Analyzing the slant of someone's handwriting falls under the category of handwriting analysis. There are two types of handwriting analysis. The first, generally more reputable one is called forensic document examination or forensic handwriting analysis. In this type of examination, the investigator will compare the handwriting in one sample against another to determine who wrote it, or if a document has been forged, that sort of thing. Forensic document analysts may be asked to testify in court about their conclusions. This is generally considered a more verifiable science, although recent court cases have questioned its reliability. But compared with graphology, forensic handwriting analysis practically embodies the scientific method.

The other type of handwriting analysis is graphology. It is, as Hermione Granger would say, a very woolly subject. Graphologists examine various characteristics of a person's handwriting and they say those characteristics indicate various features of the writer's personality or future. Lots of spaces between the letters? Why, you must be a lonely person! The dots over your lower case i's are placed far away from the letter itself? Why, you are most certainly a forward thinker! Sign your name with big huge swooping letters? You're an artistic person!

One graphologist says this handwriting indicates unflappability. Oh, and this note happens to have been written by Mata Hari.
(Image from Personality traits in handwriting)

Graphology is reminiscent of astrology or tarot card reading or palmistry, in that some combination of attributes is said to therefore mean x, y, and z about your personality or your future. But if anyone tries to pin this stuff down scientifically, to see if they can create reliable and reproducible results, either the practitioners back away and say you're disturbing the aura or some such thing, or the results fall apart like a house of cards.

I have to admit from the outset that I was quite interested in graphology once upon a time. I read a whole book about it. When I was in the eighth grade.

The Skeptic's Dictionary says it best:
Graphology (graphoanalysis) is the study of handwriting, especially when employed as a means of analyzing character and personality traits. Graphologists examine loops, dotted "i's" and crossed "t's," letter spacing, slants, heights, ending strokes, upslant pressure, downslant pressure, etc., but they believe that such handwriting minutiae are physical manifestations of unconscious mental functions.

However, [according to the British Columbia Civil Liberties Association,] "in properly controlled, blind studies, where the handwriting samples contain no content that could provide non-graphological information upon which to base a prediction (e.g., a piece copied from a magazine), graphologists do no better than chance at predicting... personality traits." Even non-experts are able to correctly identify the gender of a writer about 70% of the time.

Since there is no useful theory as to how graphology might work, it is not surprising that there is no empirical evidence that any graphological characteristics significantly correlate with any interesting personality trait.

[Finally he sums it up, and this is my favorite part:] Graphology is another pipe dream of those who want a quick and dirty decision making process to tell them whom to marry, who did the crime, whom they should hire, what career they should seek, where the good hunting is, where the water, oil, or buried treasure is, etc. Graphology is another in a long list of quack substitutes for hard work.

It is appealing to those who are impatient with such troublesome matters as research, evidence analysis, reasoning, logic, and hypothesis testing. If, however, you can live with reasonable probabilities and uncertainty, you might try another method besides graphology to pick a spouse or hire an employee.

Well. Now that we know his opinion about graphology, let's see if the data bears him out.

I decided to look at various websites about graphology and see what they said left-sloping (or left-slanting) handwriting was supposed to mean. Would the various graphologists all agree on what it meant, or would different people have different interpretations? Even astrologers will pretty much agree that people born under such & such a sign are generally supposed to have thus & so traits. Would a similar consistency be true among graphologists? 

To be clear, left-slanting refers to the tilt of the individual letters.

The slope of the lines is something else. While the lines tilt down to the left, this is actually referred to as downward slanting and is something entirely different, according to the graphologists.
(Both samples from AFMag)

Here's a run-down of what various graphology sites say about left-slanting writing.  All errors in grammar, spelling, punctuation, etc. are the graphologists'.

  • Extreme left slant: such persons have a repressed childhood and are fearful of the life itself. They are emotionally withdrawn, apprehensive of intimacy and defensive. --Aryabhatt Astrology Services
  • In general interpretation of writing it may be said that the left direction is interpreted as the direction towards the mother as well as the past. Left slant writing is seen more often in women than in men. We often see left slant in people who have a disturbed balance in the parental equilibrium. Writers with left slant are generally much closer to their mothers. -- "The Graphology article of Paralumun New Age Village is wrote by graphologist Daryl Gordon"
  • A left slant tendency shows emotion and reserve. This writer needs to be true to self first and foremost and can be resentful if others try to push for more commitment from them.  --graphology page from
  • If it leans to the left to a large extent, it means that the person tends to be withdrawn to himself. He doesn't like to mix up with the people around.Such a person may have experienced a very bad tragedy earlier in his life and is scared of the future. If you have a left slant , it is recommended that you do something about it immediately. -- Know Your Handwriting, Know Yourself
  • The leftward slant is indicative of people who are emotionally unexpressive, introverted, and even selfish. They literally "pull back" towards themselves when they utilize a left hand slant. Left hand slant is the hardest slant to write with. Using this choice is due to emotional withdrawal and repression. They can be defiant, and very difficult to deal with. They just don't trust other people and don't want them in their life. Thus they make difficult relationship partners. Leftward slant writers are often writers, artists, and poets. These people will often show great emotions in their creative works. I interpret this as an exhibition of their inability to express themselves emotionally in reality; and therefore they sublimate these strong emotions in their writing or art.
  • Left slant: Most writers who write with left slant, are persons who were emotional, sometimes even highly emotional during childhood (natural characteristic) but due to trauma and/or childhood difficulties of all sorts and difficulty to adapt, switched (unconsciously, without awareness) into a more rational mode of thinking, suppressing their emotional issues and avoided dealing with them. They say "no" to the father figure for any possible reason (a weak father, a too stern father, no father at home) and identify with the mother figure (out of love or of identifying with her strength, a strength which might be masked at time). saying nay to the father figure results often in saying nay to authoritative figures in adulthood. --adva weinerman at
  • If the slant is at 100 degrees, it indicates that the person remembers all the good and bad things that have happened in the past. It shows a nature that is suppressed and controlled, and which therefore could collapse when faced with problems and difficulty. If the slant is at 120 degrees, the person is cold and self-centred, and has no respect or regard towards others. --Sheetu Deep

Well, there is some consistency here.  Withdrawn, repressed, unfriendly, prefers the mother.  I wish I wrote with a left slant so I could say whether any of this is accurate.  I don't think I know anyone who writes with a left slant.  Anybody out there with a left slant care to ring in on this and agree or disagree with these interpretations?

These people are being withdrawn and unfriendly. I wonder if either or both of them have left-slanting handwriting.
(Photo from Who the Hell is Eden Hansom???)

I'd like to try another test. I've noticed that a lot of graphologists like to offer analyses of famous people's handwriting as a way to prove their abilities.  And they all seem to want to talk about Bill Clinton's handwriting for some reason.  So I'm going to compare what they say about his handwriting a) one graphologist against another; and b) their interpretations against what graphologists say in general about a key feature.

Here's the same of Bill Clinton's handwriting to which many of the graphologists refer:

Since we just talked about slant, I want to point out that, to me, it looks as if Bill's handwriting is primarily upright, but it does seem to lean a bit to the left.  I'll get into that in more detail in a bit.  First, let's hear how the graphologists interpret Bill's handwriting.
In Clinton's handwriting one can discern two very prominent forces which motivate his activity.

One is a particularly strong and untiring urge to constantly prove himself, up to the point of having difficulty of resting on his laurels and of feeling satisfied with his achievements.

The other force which motivates him is the need to belong. From early childhood Clinton has struggled with a feeling of rejection and of not belonging. It is so important to him to belong that he sees the entire nation as his family.

In addition he is a very sensual person.

It is important to him to touch and to be in contact all the time and only then he feels he belongs.

He does not see himself as 'upper class'.

He feels more as part of the system and therefore it is convenient for him to cooperate in a team framework, to listen, to consult and only then to undertake responsibility and to move forward.

He also has a considerable amount of stubbornness and determination. He does not easily let go of his position and is able to fight for his principles, keeping his self-control and coolness.
--Anna Koren

Hmm, I wonder what she would have said if she'd only seen the handwriting and hadn't known who wrote it.  On to the next one.
Bill Clinton’s handwriting is a mixture of curves and angles: the angles give strength to the curves and the curves soften the angles. Thus, he is an emotional person who feels things deeply, someone who will go to some lengths to create a consensus. Yet, when he strongly believes in something he has the capacity to stand firm in his viewpoint. The overall picture of space is compact, indicating a strong need for social contact and genuine caring for the welfare of others.
Rounded writing is generally seen as a more feminine quality. When it appears in a man’s script it is interpreted as emotional softness, an indicator of one whose heart is easily touched. It can be seen that Clinton both laughs and cries easily and is not ashamed to show his feelings. Another aspect of the round forms exemplified by this handwriting sample is a need for physical contact. He is someone who touches others frequently, and enjoys hugging and holding them close.  
Clinton’s predominantly rounded writing style suggests that his most important motivation is the need to help and serve others. Failing in this would leave him feeling useless and miserable. He needs to know that he has made a difference. The capital B in his signature, which is larger than his surname initial, demonstrates a desire for others to think of him as “Bill,” more than “Mr. Clinton.”
-- Sheila Lowe

I'm willing to bet she is thinking of "I feel your pain."  
(Photo from Carter Fitness Chronicles)

I wonder if a man would interpret Clinton's handwriting differently.
Bill Clinton's handwriting indicates the trait called Surface Thinking. (Yes, he is intelligent, but has a tendency to make quick decisions based on surface information.) Also, Bill's handwriting shows insatiable sex drives, persistence, ambition, caution, anger at women, and even the tendency to lie and have poor ethics. A great actor and good at poker. Could you have predicted that from his writing? I did... four years ago.

Here's another:
The pressure is very heavy. This usually indicates greater accomplishments. Heavy pressure writers' emotions are very strong and long lasting. Bill may be inclined to hold grudges and he will not quickly forget the actions of his friends or enemies. His pressure will amplify all other traits found in his writing.

The slant is vertical. He tries not to show his emotions. He makes decisions based on logic, not emotions (his head rules his heart). Anyone who holds back their emotions makes a conscious effort to do so, causing a certain amount of stress and inner turmoil. Bill's baseline is also very straight, indicating even more control over his emotions. These emotions buildup over time and have to be released.

Bill concentrates on the middle zone (daily activities, running the country, etc.), and the lower zone (desire for material wealth, sex drive, etc.). There is not much going on in the upper zone at all ( Bill has advisors to do his thinking for him).

Clinton's handwriting is smaller than normal, giving him the ability to concentrate. His lower loops are quite large compared to the size of the rest of his script. If you look closely, you will see the lower loops in his g's, p's y's are very fat and are magnified by his deep emotions.

Bill is under emotional pressure and he has to release some steam from time to time. He releases some of this physical desire by running two or three miles, and then stops and has a couple of Big Mac's. But there is the strong sex drive. How does he relieve that?
--Gary Thomas at viewzone

That last one seems to suggest that it's Bill's handwriting that gives him the ability to concentrate.  As opposed to the handwriting being an indication of something.  But that's just the tip of the logical problem iceberg.

Gosh, how could that guy tell from that handwriting sample that Bill Clinton likes Big Macs?
(Photo from Fox News)

Interesting that all of them talked about Bill's sex drive or at least, his need to touch people often. Let's summarize each one and see how they compare:
  • Reading 1 says he needs to belong, needs to be touched, is stubborn and will fight for his principles but he keeps his cool. 
  • Reading 2 says he can stand firm in his viewpoint, genuinely cares about others, needs to serve others or he's unhappy.  He's an emotional person, cries easily, is not ashamed to show his feelings.
  • Reading 3 says he's ambitious, intelligent but prone to making quick decisions, has an insatiable sex drive and anger toward women, plus a tendency to lie and have poor ethics.
  • Reading 4 says his emotions are strong and long-lasting, he holds grudges, he doesn't do any thinking for himself, he does not show his emotions but makes decisions based on logic, but his emotions will build up and he has to let them out at some point.

If I read those four descriptions completely out of context, I'm not sure whether I would guess that they were all an attempt to describe the same person.

I've paid particular attention to what they say about his emotional situation because, having just talked about slant, the first thing I noticed about Bill's writing was that its slant is pretty much upright though it does lean slightly to the left.

As we just learned, a leftward slant suggests being withdrawn, repressed to the point of being unfriendly, and prefers one's mother.  I don't think we can say any of these things about Bill Clinton, not even a little bit.  

But since the slant is primarily upright, let's cut the graphologists some slack for a moment.  What do they say about an upright slant? In the interests of brevity, I'll give you just a few.

  • This handwriting is indicator of independent, self controlled, self restrained and self reliant. Their head controls heart. --Aryabhatt Astrology Services

  • If it is vertically upright or very slightly leaning towards right , this person is ruled by his head and not by heart. This is a very positive trait one can have. Emotions have no or very less roll to play in the decisions he makes. All his decisions are based on logic and thinking. There is no need for this person to express emotions. When someone asks him a favour or asks him to buy something, he needs to know all the facts , any emotional stories will have no effect on the writer. -- Know Your Handwriting, Know Yourself 
  • If the slant is more upright; then we have a self-reliant person who is reserved emotionally. Upright slanted writers suppress their emotions. This person neither "reaches" out; nor "pull back". Because of their reserve, they have an uncanny ability to remain calm under pressure. Here is where they have an advantage over the emotionally expressive person. People with upright slants or slighty left make good employees in pressure packed situations like an airline pilot, or paramedic, firefighter, or police officer as example. They think and act with their "head". These people are "head over heart". They use logic and reason to make decisions. They "think things out" rather than rely on any intuition or gut feelings.
  • If the slant is right-angled at 90 degrees, it shows a selfish nature. These people are analytic and unemotional, but could also be sincere and reliable. They always recognise obligations and hence prove good friends. --Sheetu Deep

These graphologists all seem to agree that an upright slant suggests "head over heart" and that the writer is self-controlled and emotionally reserved.  That is certainly not anything like what any of those graphologists said about Bill Clinton.

Funny how that worked out, isn't it?

Bill Clinton on a visit to Haiti in 2010.  A guy who likes to touch people, or an emotionally reserved person?  Graphology will tell us.
(Photo from Permaculture)

I also want to point out something else about the vertical slant.  A friend of mine in high school was from England, and she wrote with a very vertical slant (or non-slant) to her handwriting.  I have since noticed this is true of lots of people educated in England.

Sample of British vertical handwriting
(Image from Dilemmas of an Expat Tutor)

It turns out, at some point in the history of British education, teachers thought that vertically slanted handwriting was more legible and took up less space, so that's how they began teaching British children to write. So the suggestion that all people are "head over heart" and emotionally reserved seems like a load of hogwash.  Because that would mean that nearly every Brisih-educated person is like that.  Or does it just mean that graphologists are only perpetuating the cliche about the British?  Stiff upper lip and all that?  Either way, I say, bunk.

Finally, I tried one last test. I found one site that promised to give me an online analysis, free of charge.  It told me to find a sample of my handwriting (cursive) and then answer some questions about its various characteristics.  For each attribute, it gave three options to choose from, and I had to choose which one of the three was most similar to my handwriting.

I went through the whole thing and at the end, it asked for my name and e-mail address.  For the cause of research I obliged.  I received an e-mail within seconds.  I will post the full content of the message for you here.  Now, totally unedited and unaltered, here is what it said:

Dear apple lady,

Here is your personal handwriting analysis!  This will be a general reading of your handwriting, and what it says about you and your personality.  Enjoy.

We hope that gives you a little more insight into your personality, and your handwriting.  Thanks for visiting us.

Your friend,
The OFE Graphologist

Oh, boy, that cracks me up. 

The Skeptic's Dictionary, graphology (graphoanalysis)
 Dilemmas of an Expat Tutor, Why Britain Made a Change to Vertical Handwriting

Sunday, April 8, 2012

Apple #578: What Does "Easter" Mean?

As you may recall from my last entry, I am in the midst of answering a multi-part question from Daily Apple reader Roxanne. But before I continue with that, I have to address the fact that today is Easter

Word-curious Apple Lady that I am, I naturally wondered, why is it called "Easter" anyway? The Christian celebration has to do with Jesus being raised from the dead, but the word for it seems to have nothing to do with any of those concepts. So where does the word "Easter" come from?

This is about our how culture celebrates Easter: a little bit Christian, a little bit pagan.
(Photo from Discovery News)

  • The answer, I'm afraid, is rather iffy.
  • I consulted my compact edition of the Oxford English Dictionary (my favorite reference tool ever), and it gave me an uncharacteristically confusing answer. I'll spare you the heavily abbreviated and perplexing details and rather summarize the illuminating explanations provided elsewhere.
  • The word "Easter" comes from a whole lot of old Germanic words that, in lower case form, refer to the place where the sun rises, or the dawn itself.
  • The Venerable Bede, or Baeda, who was a priest living in a monastery in Northumbria, England around 700 A.D. provided an additional definition. He wrote a number of books, some of them histories, some of them Biblical commentaries.

Venerable Bede, or Baeda, a priest from Northumbria who wrote down a lot of stuff.
(Image from NNDB)

  • In one of his books, he said that back before his time, before there were any monasteries in Northumbria, or before there was much practice of Christianity there at all, the month of April was called Eosturmonath, or the month (monath) of Eostre.
  • Eostre, he said, was the name of a pagan goddess of the dawn (or perhaps spring, depending on your translation of Bede), and that pagan worshippers used to celebrate her feast day on the first day of Spring.
  • Well, if he's correct, that means the most sacred of days on the Christian calendar is named for a pagan festival.

Artist's depiction of the supposed goddess Eostre, by Jacques Reich, 1909. The artist associated her with all sorts of spring-like things: flower petals, babies, rabbits, the stork.
(Image from Wikipedia)

  • That's not very unusual, actually; all sorts of Christian holidays are linked in some fashion with pagan celebrations. I suppose the only reason I find this startling is because I never heard anyone talk about this before. Sure, there are bunnies and egg-dyeing (as opposed to egg dying, something any expectant mother would lament) but I never heard anybody say that the very name of the thing refers to a pagan feast.
  • But, as it turns out, the Venerable Bede might have made the whole thing up. Nobody can find much evidence of this supposed Eostre goddess.
  • Jacob Grimm, (yes, one of the Brothers Grimm), confirmed Bede's story but only in a word-origin sense. He said it seemed like the word for the goddess came from a particular Old High German word ostar. But he did not say he saw any evidence of the existence of the goddess or actual celebrations carried out in her honor.
  • Scholars still debate whether any goddess named Eostre or Ostara ever existed in the way-back day. Some say they have found evidence; others say the evidence is still rather scant.
  • So the jury is still out about whether there was a goddess named Eostre.
  • But our word "Easter" today does come from those original lower-case root words: the place where the sun rises, or the dawn itself. And therefore, beginnings.

Sunrise. New Day. Fresh start. Also, Easter.
(Photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Happy Easter, everybody.

My copy of The Oxford English Dictionary
Association of Polytheist Traditions, Eostre and Easter Customs
All About History, Origin of the Word Easter Paganism/Wicca, History of Ostara - The Spring Equinox
NNDB, Venerable Bede

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Apple #577: Left-Handedness

I've had a request! Regular Daily Apple Reader Roxanne wants to know:

I've heard that left-sloping handwriting means you can't trust someone, but that might just be an extension of the notion that left-handed people are evil or that left-handedness is a product of the devil--my mother-in-law tells tales of nuns slapping her hand with a ruler when she tried to write with her left hand. Has there been a Daily Apple about this? I'd read the shit out of that!!

Actually, Roxanne's enthusiastic request covers two topics: the notion that left-handed people are evil, and whether left-sloping handwriting means its owner is untrustworthy. And really, the second part of that question may relate to issues of graphology in general, which is a rather large topic and one best tackled on its own.

So I'm going to take up the topics separately, and left-handedness first.

The way Rick is holding the pen is one of the many inventive ways left-handed people use to write so that they don't smear the ink just after they've put it on paper.
(Photo from The Nibster, a really interesting site that makes and sells specialty pens and nibs)

Some Facts to Start With

The funny thing about left-handedness is that it doesn't take very long for the conversation to veer off from known facts into superstitions, claims about people's character, and their tendency to be bad people. It seems like, even with all our fancy science, we still hold a lot of superstitions about left-handed people.

I'll start with the most basic facts I found, and then you'll see how quickly the topic turns toward speculation and finger-pointing.

  • Roughly 10% of the population is left-handed.
  • That rate seems to hold true throughout the world, and since there have been people. Cave paintings depict some of the people holding spears in their left hand.
  • The fact that it's persisted in generation after generation suggests that there is some biological reason why we need some people to be left-handed.
  • Some researchers think that lefties have the benefit of surprise, that they come from a direction others don't expect, or they're on the lookout for predators coming from the side where the righties aren't looking.
  • Handedness--a preference for one side or the other--exists in all sorts of species, not just humans, and not just animals. The same 10% rate seems to exist in chimps, toads, and even schools of fish. (In general, the rate of left vs. right varies a lot from one species to another.)

One study found that female dogs prefer their left paw and male dogs prefer their right. Until they are spayed or neutered, after which they don't seem to care either way. Aw.
(Photo from the Daily Mail)

  • Even though we think of people as being either left- or right-handed, it's probably best considered on a spectrum, that some people are very strongly left- or right-handed, some who prefer to use one hand over the other but do have a choice, as well as varying levels of competency with the non-dominant hand.
  • Case in point: 4 of our last 7 Presidents have been left-handed: Gerald R. Ford, George H. W. Bush, William J. Clinton, and Barack H. Obama.
  • However, Ford said if he was standing up, he wrote with his right hand. Some people say that though Reagan wrote with his right hand, he may have actually been left-handed or was at least ambidextrous.

What do these men have in common? They're all lefties! Yes, possibly even Ronald Reagan!
(Photo from Rants 'n Reviews)

  • Left-handedness does run in families, which suggests a genetic link. But researchers hesitate to say for sure that there is one gene for left-handedness. They say it is much more complex than that, since it is often connected with language preferences and capabilities, and since there is a "nurture" element to the equation as well.
  • Recent research suggests that the more stress a mother is under during pregnancy, the greater the likelihood that her child will be born left-handed. Also, if the mother is over 40, or if the child has a low birth weight, the child will be more likely to be left-handed.
  • One review of research in the field found that genetics is considered to be responsible for left-handedness only about 25% of the time.
  • One reason it gets difficult to sort all this out is because the brains of left-handed people may be arranged differently. In right-handed people's brains, the parts that deal with language are on the left. You might expect, then, that for left-handed people, their language parts would be on the right. Not so simple.
  • About 70% of left-handed people's language centers are also on the left. But 30% of left-handed people either have their language pieces on the right, or else their language parts are evenly distributed across both sides of the brain.
  • Researchers also currently suspect that symmetry--when both sides of the brain try to manage the same task--is actually harder for the brain, and it's been linked to disorders such as schizophrenia, dyslexia, and ADHD.
  • So, being left-handed may mean that you're more likely to have those sorts of brain disorders.

Superstitions and Pseudoscience

  • All this current research linking left-handedness to scary disorders uncomfortably reminds me of the way people used to regard left-handed people: in a word, as scary.
  • For centuries, left-handed people were regarded with fear and skepticism.
  • In many cultures, the left side of the body was/is considered the "taboo" side.
  • The devil was thought to come from the left (see Latin sinister) so anyone who was left-handed surely already had the devil on his side.
  • Paintings of Satan often put him on the left side of the picture because there are some passages in the Bible that say Lucifer was on God's left.

Here, Satan is in the middle, but Eve is taking his apple with her left hand. She's also standing to Adam's left, and he's pushing her away with his left hand. This is a good example of another equation that also gets made, which is that men = right and thus strong or good, and women = left and thus weak or bad.
(Image from Bartered Breath)

  • The Devil was said to baptize with the left hand. (Even today, we in the US would never swear an oath with the left hand raised. Right hand only!)
  • Left-handed women were often suspected of being witches, or vice versa (see Joan of Arc).
  • At one point, the Catholic Church, ever the paragon of tolerance, at one point declared that left-handed people were the servants of the devil.
  • Consequently lots of people were burned or otherwise executed primarily because they were left-handed.
  • Children who exhibited signs of being left-handed got whacked with a ruler to have that tendency beaten out of them, or they had their left hand tied behind their back so they would have to use their right hand instead.
  • It's not just a Western superstition, however. Lots of African and pre-Christian peoples have superstitions about left-handed people.

The ancient Egyptian god Set is the god of chaos and storms and destruction and sometimes he is also evil. He is known as "the Left Eye of the Sun." He is associated with animals like crocodiles and hippos, which are considered unclean. He is usually depicted holding his staff in his left hand.
(Photo from Ancient Treasures)

  • In Buddhism, there are two paths. People should avoid the path to the left but choose instead the path on the right, which leads to the eight-fold path of enlightenment.
  • Until relatively recently, in Japan, if a woman was left-handed, that was sufficient grounds for divorce.
  • Eskimos believe you have to keep an eye on left-handed people because they may become sorcerers.
  • In 1903, physician Cesare Lombroso published a study in which he said you could identify a criminal by all sorts of physical features, such as an excess of moles, a "primitive" distribution of pubic hair, and left-handedness. He thought criminals (and prostitutes and "lunatics") were more primitive types of people, and he said their their uncivilized or savage behavior was linked to their proclivity to the weaker, more primitive side of the body, the left.
  • He summed up with this proclamation: "left-handedness, united to many other traits, may contribute to form one of the worst characters among the human species."

Cesare Lombroso, the man who brought all sorts of superstitions and prejudices about left-handed people into the realm of 20th century science.
(Photo from

  • Ah, here we go, someone agrees with me. Harold Kushner, writing in The Lancet, says that Lombroso's ideas were eventually dismissed as "pseudoscience" and are now the subject of much ridicule. But, he cautions, a lot of studies being bandied about now are making claims that we may also soon see as rather silly. He cautions that even though we have all sorts of tools like genetic analysis and brain imaging technology and high-powered biostatistical methods, we are not immune from reaching biased and even somewhat laughable conclusions.

  • What people think of the left side shows up in the language. Here are various languages, their words for "left" and what those words also mean.
  • Latin : sinister. Our word "sinister" comes directly from there, meaning that we think someone who is evil and suspicious must be left-handed.
  • Greek : skaios, which may mean either left-handed or ill-omened or awkward.
  • German : links, means both left-handed and weak.
  • French : gauche, which means awkward or clumsy and also very outre -- in general, something no French person with an ounce of self-respect would ever want to be.

Good Stuff about Being Left-Handed
  • On the other hand (har har) left-handed people are thought to be better at what's called "divergent thinking," which means they come up with new ways of doing things, or innovative solutions to problems.
  • There's been lots of debate about whether left-handed people are smarter, but one researcher's study found that more people with IQs over 140 were left-handed. Lots of really famous smart people were left-handed: Albert Einstein, Isaac Newton, Benjamin Franklin, to name a few.
  • Left-handed people may have an advantage on the big screen. Lefties tend to gesture with their left hands. When viewed on screen, that looks to us as if they're using their right hand. So they seem to us righties as if they are the dominant person on screen. This may be why lefties seem to do better in politics in this current, highly televised world.

Barack Obama, waving with his left -- and to us viewers, his preferred -- hand.
(Photo from Hand Facts)

  • Or, maybe left-handed people are just like you and me. Ever thought of that?

Famous Lefties

To counter what seems to be a stubborn prejudice, I'll list just a few of the famous people throughout history who were or are left-handed.


Einstein says: Ha ha, I'm left-handed and you're not.
(Photo from Jokes with Einstein)

Isaac Newton
Albert Einstein
Buzz Aldrin
Dr. Albert Schweitzer

Benjamin Franklin
Henry Ford
Bill Gates

Military Leaders
"All the decisive blows are struck left-handed" --Walter Benjamin

Napoleon said, "I want all of that over there," and he took it with his left hand.
(Image from Knarf's class at U Penn on Napoleon)

Julius Caesar
Alexander the Great
(also his wife Josephine)
Fidel Castro
General Colin Powell
Joan of Arc (or she may have only been depicted as such to make her seem like a witch who therefore must be burned)


Gerald R. Ford ended our "long national nightmare" by signing Nixon's pardon -- with his left hand.
(Photo from

James A. Garfield
Herbert Hoover
Harry S Truman
Gerald R. Ford
Ronald Reagan (and his son Ron)
George H. W. Bush
William J. Clinton
Barack H. Obama

Kings, Queens, and Other Leaders

Queen Victoria was left-handed. How unconventional, how un-Victorian of her! Here she is pictured with her beloved Collie, Sharp, at her left side.
(Photo from The Border Collie Museum)

Ramses II
Queen Victoria
Prince Charles
Prince William
Benjamin Netanyahu

Billy the Kid
Jack the Ripper
John Dillinger
Boston Strangler

Supreme Court Justices and other Lawyers

One of the tests for left-handedness is to fold your hands and see which hand is on top. In Ruth's case, it's her left.
(Photo from Felber Frolics)

Ruth Bader Ginsberg
Anthony Kennedy
Clarence Darrow
F. Lee Bailey


Escher's Drawing Hands -- possibly a reflection on what it feels like to be left-handed?
(Image from io9)

Michelangelo (ambidextrous; also his Adam on the Sistine Chapel)
Leonardo da Vinci
R. Crumb
M.C. Escher
Matt Groening (also Bart Simpson)
Albrecht Dürer
Pablo Picasso
Paul Klee
Edvard Munch


Would that we all could be as dashing as Cary Grant. Who happens to be left-handed.
(Photo from the Museum of Modern Art, sourced from the Encyclopedia Britannica blog)

Jerry Seinfeld
Oprah Winfrey
David Letterman
Jay Leno
Lenny Bruce
Robert Redford
Robert DeNiro
Whoopie Goldberg
Marilyn Monroe
Greta Garbo
Judy Garland
Charlie Chaplin
Harpo Marx
Cary Grant
Betty Grable
Dan Aykroyd
Diane Keaton
Richard Pryor
Julia Roberts
Sylvester Stallone
Bruce Willis


James Baldwin. Left-handed. Simple as that.
(Photo from Joe Vogel)

Mark Twain
Marshall McLuhan
Eudora Welty
Lewis Carroll
James Baldwin
H. G. Wells
Jessamyn West


Right-handed batters supposedly have a harder time hitting against left-handed pitchers. Especially when they're Cliff Lee.
(Photo from Observing Baseball)

Jimmy Connors
John McEnroe
Martina Navratilova
Babe Ruth
Barry Bonds
Wade Boggs
Ty Cobb
Ken Griffey, Jr.
Rickey Henderson
Sandy Koufax
Cliff Lee
Stan Musial
Ted Williams
Mark Spitz
Bruce Jenner
Dorothy Hamill
Gayle Sayers
Steve Young
Boomer Esaison
Deion Sanders
Larry Bird
Bill Russell
Bill Walton


Jimi Hendrix. Possibly one of the most creative musicians of modern times. Also left-handed.
(Photo from Jimi

Ludwig van Beethoven
Sergei Rachmaninoff
Cole Porter
Jimi Hendrix
Paul McCartney
Ringo Starr
Robert Plant
Paul Simon
David Byrne
John Lydon a.k.a. Johnny Rotten
Kurt Cobain
Billy Corgan
Glen Campbell

Good People
my dad
probably lots of people you know too

Perri Klass, M.D., On the Left Hand, There Are No Easy Answers,
The New York Times, March 6, 2011
The Left-Handed Advantage, ABC News, February 17, 2005
The Health Risks of Being Left-Handed,
The Wall Street Journal, December 6, 2011
David E. Rosenbaum, On Left-Handedness, Its Causes and Costs, The New York Times on the Web, May 16, 2000
Howard Kushner, Cesare Lombroso and the pathology of left-handedness, The Lancet, January 8, 2011
Quora, Handedness: Why was there prejudice against left-handed people?
Uncle Taz, Left-handedness
5 surprising facts about left-handed people, The Week, May 2, 2011
AccessScience, Does "handedness" exist among other animals?
Anything Left Handed, Left-handed animals?, A Left-Handed History of the World, Left-Handed Artists
M.K. Holder's list of Famous Left-Handers