Left-handed people are endlessly fascinating to me. Why are there so few of them? Why are they so proud of something they randomly inherited?
We may not be able to answer all of those questions today, but if you’re curious about why they’re called “southpaws,” we may have something for you.
The term has been around since the 1800s, and comes courtesy of baseball players and boxes who swung from the left. In an 1813 letter to the editor in The Tickler, perhaps the first recorded instance, it seems to be linked to boxing specifically.
An 1848 political cartoon uses it as a term for someone striking a blow with their left hand, and applies it to a Democratic contender for president, the caption reading “Curse the old hoss wot a south paw he has given me!”
In 1860, the boxing references returned, with the New York Herald reporting that lefty David Woods “planted his ‘south paw’ under his opponents chin, laying him out flat as a pancake.”
In baseball, the term began to apply to any left-handed player, but especially a pitcher, in the 1800s. In those early stadiums, home plate was built facing the west, which meant a left-handed pitcher would be throwing with his “south” paw.
Not every stadium was built this way, but since Chicago’s West Side Park was, theories are that early sports writers popularized the term, which caught on.
Another theory (for my fellow Latin nerds), is that in ancient Rome, bad omens came from the left. The word for left in Latin is sinistra, which is where we derive the English word “sinister,” and is one reason left-handed people have been thought to be devilish in the past.
It could be as simple as someone re-equating south and left and then bad and left, though I’m not sure how many Latin scholars and baseball fans intersected at the time.
There you go – now you know one more fun thing about lefties!
Go forth and share the theories with your friends (and make sure to point out the Latin one, just for fun!)