Here’s Why Lefties Used to Be Retrained to Use Their Right Hand

Many natural-born lefties were forced into becoming righties throughout the course of history—and in some countries, they still are.

There have always been people who have been afraid of those who are different. Historically, this has also been true of right-handed people in relation to lefties. Because the majority of the population—approximately 90 percent, according to research—is right-handed, there has been a prevailing bias against those whose left hand is their dominant one. That bias has shown itself in countless cultures throughout time in the form of fear and mythology, which is why lefties used to be retrained to use their right hand, a practice that we now know is cruel. Here’s the real reason some people are left-handed, according to science.

A precursor to mental illness

Historically, many lefties were retrained to use their right hand because people thought that it was an indication that they would develop a mental illness later in life. In reality, Howard I. Kushner, researcher, professor at Emory University, and author of On the Other Hand: Left Hand, Right Brain, Mental Disorder, and History, found the opposite to be true. It was because left-handed children were being forced by right-handed adults to alter and reject their natural behavior that they would develop conditions such as stuttering or attention disorders.

The devil’s plaything

A TIME article published in 1969 contends that ever since medieval times, stern Catholics have believed that being left-handed was a sign of the devil or witchcraft. In the United States and Britain, it was regular practice to retrain lefties as righties throughout the 20th century. Three famous examples: King George VI, who was forced to learn to write with his right hand and developed a stutter; President Harry S. Truman; and, potentially, President Ronald Reagan.

A sinister meaning

The right-hander’s bias against the southpaw has even worked its way into languages all across the globe. Did you know that the word “sinister” actually means “left”? The German word “linkisch” (related to the left) means “awkward.” In Mandarin Chinese, words synonymous with “left” are “wrong” and “incorrect.” And, of course, in English, “right” is synonymous with “correct.”

Biased engineering

Scholar or not, everyone knows that lefties are also at a disadvantage when it comes to tools, customs, and pretty much anything else. Our world has been engineered and designed with righties in mind; think everything from scissors to sports equipment. In fact, part of the reason why only one percent of Chinese people are reported to be left-handed despite the world average being around 10 percent is because many Chinese educators taught lefties to adopt their right hand. In addition to the desire for conformity, Chinese characters were actually formed to be written with the right hand. Still, there are some surprising advantages to left-handedness you never knew.

A sign of disrespect

In several cultures, the left hand is still believed to be the unclean or the improper hand. When visiting Islamic countries, for instance, always remember to shake hands and to eat with your right hand. In these cultures, the left hand is thought to be dirty, as it is the hand that washes the body, and therefore should never make contact with another person to whom you wish to show respect.

Not marriage material

Japanese culture has historically held the belief that being left-handed is a curse or a bad omen. According to JapanTimes.co, it is commonly thought that lefties have a harder time finding a spouse. This is why many parents have retrained—and some still continue to retrain—their children to use their right hand instead. In the past couple of decades, the practice of retraining lefties has died down, but it used to be that children received some form of punishment or physical restraint for using their left hand. Check out more myths about left-handed people—and two surprising truths.

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Taylor Markarian
Taylor Markarian is a regular contributor to Reader's Digest's Culture, Advice, Travel and Pets beats. She is also a music journalist who has contributed to Alternative Press, Loudwire, Revolver, Kerrang! and more. Markarian is the author of the book, 'From the Basement: A History of Emo Music and How It Changed Society', which analyzes the evolution of punk and mental health. She holds a degree in Writing, Literature & Publishing from Emerson College.