A southpaw is a left-hander or the left hand. Today, the word is primarily used in baseball, but appears in other contexts as well. But despite its use in baseball, the term almost certainly did not originate with that sport. Use of southpaw to mean the left hand goes back all the way to 1813, long before baseball, as we know it today, existed. It’s used in a letter appearing in the Philadelphia newspaper The Tickler on 30 June of that year:
“Luk here mon, and convince yourself,” said he, holding up the Tickler, in the right paw, between the ceiling and the floor, and with the south paw pointing to the “bow, vow, vow.”
The south is most likely simply a reference to the opposite orientation than is usual and the paw is self-explanatory.
Another early use is in a political cartoon from 1848 titled Democratic B-Hoy (boy). The cartoon depicts Democratic presidential candidate Lewis Cass in a brawl with Zachary Taylor and a number of other Whigs. In the cartoon Cass is winning the fight, although in actuality he lost the election to Taylor. One of the Whigs, who has been knocked to the ground, says:
Curse the Old Hoss, what a south paw he has given me!
The first known use of southpaw in a baseball context comes ten years after this cartoon. The use is also the first known one that uses southpaw to refer to a left-handed person, as opposed to the left hand itself, and is from the New York Atlas of 12 September 1858:
Hallock, a “south paw,” let fly a good ball into the right field.”
Those who claim a baseball origin explain the term by the “fact” that 19th century baseball diamonds were often arranged so the batters would face east, to avoid looking into the afternoon sun. The pitcher’s left hand, or paw, would therefore be on the southern side. But this explanation, while sounding plausible in isolation, does not agree with the lexical evidence, which puts baseball usage nearly half a century later than that of other contexts.
There is also a northpaw, although its use is far less common. (This is typical. We tend to invent terms for unusual situations. The norm does not need to be indicated, or as linguists would say, the norm is “unmarked.” Since right-handed people make up about ninety percent of the population, there is much less need to specify when a person is right-handed.) The use of northpaw in baseball dates to 1909.
Oxford English Dictionary, “southpaw, n. (a.),” 3rd Edition, 2011, Oxford University Press, accessed 5 July 2011.
Dickson, Paul, “northpaw, n.” “southpaw, n.” The Dickson Baseball Dictionary, 3rd Edition, W. W. Norton and Company, 2009.
Copyright 1997-2015, by David Wilton