In a recent series of posts, the question has arisen as to the reliability of online etymological sources. While not wishing to pour too much oil onto the proverbial fire, I do believe that it is always sensible to maintain a certain degree of skepticism and questioning with regard to any etymological resource. In particular, there is a well-established tendency for an etymology, once it is “vouched” for by a particularly respected source (the OED, Littré, etc.) to be repeated unthinkingly in future etymological dictionaries, despite the fact that it may be seriously flawed.
A case in point: the OED seems to be the ultimate source for the nearly universal knowledge among English speakers that political right and left derive from the traditional seating positions of the “Second” and “Third” Estates in the French National Assembly, the right being the position of “honor”.
OED: This use originated in the French National Assembly of 1789, in which the nobles as a body took the position of honour on the President’s right, and the Third Estate on his left. The significance of these positions, which was at first merely ceremonial, soon became political.
[It is possible that this has been revised in the online OED to which I do not have access. But this would not change the point of my story, i.e., the influence that it had for many decades].
In many cases there is explicit reference to OED (e.g., Chambers Dictionary of Etymology), while in others it is only implicit:
At the meeings of the Assemblée nationale constituante (called the National Constituent Assembly in English) in 1789, the nobles took the position of honor at the right hand of the president of the assembly, and the representatives of the commoners took their place on the left.
The fundamental problem is that, according to all of the evidence I have been able to find, the seating pattern in the National Assembly – as well as in the preceding États Généraux and succeeding Assemblée nationale constituante – was altogether different from that posited by the OED: in particular, the nobles were placed not to the right but to the left! Thus, from an 1817 volume of memoirs,
Lors des premières assemblées des états-généraux, les députés du clergé [First Estate] siégeoient à la droite du trône du roi, ceux de la noblesse à gauche, et ceux du tiers-état se trouvoient en face, entre la droite et la gauche. Lors de la confusion des trois ordres en assemblée nationale, le clergé, sans prétendre s’arroger aucune préseance, continua à se placer à la droite, la noblesse à la gauche, le tiers se dispersa à droite et à gauche, et se trouva pêle-mêle avec les deux premiers ordres . . .
(In other words, the “ceremonial” position of the Third Estate (commoners) in the Estates-General was in the center, while the right was reserved for the clergy and the left for nobles.)
Similarly, from the “classic” account of the parliamentary history of the French Revolution by Philippe-Joseph Benjamin Buchez (1846)
Le clergé fut assis à la droite du trône; la noblesse à gauche; et le Tiers en face.
“The clergy was seated to the right of the throne; the nobility to the left; and the Third [Estate] in the center.”
There would thus appear to be no basis for asserting that the political sense of “right” and “left” has anything at all to do with the “ceremonial” seating pattern in the National Assembly (nor in that of the Estates-General or the Constituent Assembly. So how did such association arise?
It seems that it was some months later, during a vote concerning the King’s veto powers in the renamed Constituent Assembly, that supporters of the King (who were by no means only nobles) and opponents (who were by no means all from the Third Estate) divided themselves in a right–left manner within the Assembly hall.
From the same 1846 source:
Ce fut à la suite de cette séance [du 28 août] que l’assemblée se sépara définitivement en côté gauche et côté droit. Tous les partisans du veto allèrent s’asseoir à droite du président; tous les antagonistes se groupèrent dans la partie opposée [gauche]. Cette séparation rendait plus facile le calcul des voix dans le vote par assis et levé, qui avait été conservé.
“It was following this session (of 28 August) that the Assembly separated itself definitively into a left side and a right side. All of the supporters of the veto went to sit to the right of the president; all of the antagonists (opposition) grouped themselves in the opposite part [left]. This separation made it easier to count the votes by (those) sitting and standing, which has been conserved.”
The right/left association thus arose not because of a “ceremonial” seating pattern, but rather by “self-grouping” of two political blocs, which facilitated the counting of votes.
By 1791 there is a written reference to the “left” – “right” political cleavage and this division became even more accentuated following the rise of the radical Jacobins, who took their seats on the left viewed from the podium at the front.