Gawk-handed-left-handed
Posted: 28 August 2014 10:33 PM   [ Ignore ]
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The negative connotations toward left-handed people were quite apparent by the various epithets used to label them.  Although presently it seems that the caustic references to describe them have lost their provocative meanings, or perhaps they’re just ignored.

Gawk: An awkward person; a fool; a simpleton.
Gawk-handed:  Left-handed

Gauche: Graceless; socially awkward, from French gauche meaning left.

Whereas, dexterous (from Latin dexter, meaning “right”) and adroit (from the French droit, also meaning “right”) both have the connotation of skillfulness and cleverness, while the “left-handed” words such as sinister (from the Latin word “left”) and gauche, discussed above, have derogatory inferences.
The word left itself had negative connotations. It derives from Old English lyft-“weak, foolish”.

What’s interesting is the reason that the right hand became the dominant hand was because the left hemisphere of the human brain controls the movement of the right hand. It also governs language, conceivably our most important mental attribute.  Right-handedness was also thought to inspire speech. It’s thought that the left brain, which controlled manual action, continued on to controlling the vocal apparatus for speech.

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Posted: 29 August 2014 04:43 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 1 ]
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First a caution: there is a great deal of popular misconception about the left-right brain divide (i.e., lateralization of brain function). Most of what you hear about it is utter bunk. For the most part, the two hemispheres are symmetrical, with functions evenly divided. Motor function is usually split, with the right-side of the brain controlling the left-side of the body and vice versa. And some language functionality usually exists in only one hemisphere (Broca’s and Wernicke’s areas are usually in the left cerebral hemisphere for right-handers (95%) and on the right for left-handers (70%). But the brain is extremely plastic, and functionality can move. And any mapping of broad and vague characteristics like artistic talent or analytical thought to specific areas is a total misunderstanding of how the brain functions. [Add: It’s also inaccurate to say that “language” exists in one side of the brain. Specific functions may be lateralized, but “language” is processed throughout the brain. Broca’s area, for instance, is used in the recall of words from memory in the production of speech; Wernicke’s area is associated with the recognition of words.]

The OED etymology for left is woefully out of date and misleading. The usual OE form of the word is lef, and it means weakness or infirmity. I don’t know of any use of the OE word to mean foolish. (The OED contains a cite to a gloss of a Kentish word lyft glossing the Latin inanis, but it doesn’t appear in Toronto’s OE Corpus and I can’t figure out the OED’s abbreviation for the source. Lyft means air in OE, and I would think this is a use of air to mean empty, vacuous, which is the primary meaning of inanis.)

I thought that perhaps this sense of gawk came from gauche, but this doesn’t appear to be the case. It’s a dialectal (northern) contraction of gaulish. So maybe there’s some ethnic disparagement going on in the origin.

I’d also point out the modern skate/snow boarding term goofy footed, meaning someone who rides with the right foot forward. (Most people are more comfortable with the dominant foot to the rear.) In use the term isn’t negative, but it’s clearly got some kind of disparaging origin.

[ Edited: 29 August 2014 05:15 AM by Dave Wilton ]
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Posted: 29 August 2014 08:38 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 2 ]
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Where I come from (SE England) the standard form is cack-handed rather than gawk-handed, and it’s routinely used to mean ‘clumsy’. In fact, it wouldn’t surprise me if many of the people who use it in that sense don’t even realise its connection with left-handedness any more than they do with sinister .

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Posted: 29 August 2014 02:34 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 3 ]
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Cack-handed and gawk-handed seem to be two separate words that are synonyms, rather than two forms of the same word.

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Posted: 30 August 2014 03:12 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 4 ]
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Yes. Cack-handed has a very different metaphor underlying it.

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