What do Pablo Picasso, Babe Ruth and Barack Obama have in common?
They’re all lefties -- as in left-handed, that is.
That was just one of many discoveries made at Chrysti the Wordsmith’s table, “Gauche and Sinister: Labels for Lefties” at the 13th annual Great Conversations Wednesday night at the Great Northern Hotel.
Hers was one of 40 roundtables buzzing with conversations at the sold-out fundraiser by the Helena Education Foundation.
Among the evening’s many tantalizing topics were -- “Watchdog in the Statehouse,” Chuck Johnson’s 43 years covering Montana politics; “One of the Boys in a Boat,” Olympic team and National Kayak champion Terry White sharing fascinating tales of the Olympics; and “Yearning to Breathe Free,” a look at immigration from the immigrant’s perspective.
And, it would appear, from a survey around the room -- that the art of conversation is still alive and thriving in Helena.
Philip Campbell attended to sit in on a conversation on Cuba because he and his wife had just visited there.
Curt Chisholm was attending for the first time because he’s a huge fan of Archbishop Raymond Hunthausen and wanted to hear the author who had written a book about the cleric.
And a trio of high school students were there because they were alumni of the PEAK program and were given tickets to attend.
“We’re super happy to be here,” said Willa Fossum.
At Chrysti the Wordsmith’s table, the conversational focus was on the linguistic maligning of lefties.
Chrysti M. Smith, who is herself a lefty, is the star of her own popular NPR radio program “Chrysti the Wordsmith,” where she’s gained an international following of word lovers.
Throughout history, righties have looked askance at their lefty neighbors -- and come up with a wide array of unflattering and maligning terms for them.
This is despite the fact that lefties have made up about 10 percent of the population for the last 500,000 years, according to Smith’s research.
Plenty of time, one would think, for righties to just get over it, already.
Suspicion of lefties apparently runs deep in word lore.
In Latin, the word for left is “sinister,” which has come to mean shady or evil, points out Smith. Thus the root of the word “sinistrality,” referring to left-handedness.
While the Latin word for right is “dexter,” from which flows the word dexterous -- “having manual skill and cleverness.”
The French were equally disparaging of lefties.
The French word for left is “gauche,” which has also come to mean awkward, rude and ignorant, said Smith.
While the French word for right, “droit,” is the root of the English, “adroit,” meaning capable and clever.
In the 1500s, it was believed that the mothers of left-handed people had consorted with the devil, said Smith. “The devil always comes up with left-handedness” in Western cultures.
Conversation around the table also ventured into the hilarious realm of what happens when lefties (or righties) attempt to drive in the UK on the left side of the road -- particularly when negotiating roundabouts.
Besides sharing the fascinating history of linguistic libeling of lefties, Smith also shared some of her tools for hunting down the history of words or idioms -- like “raining cats and dogs.”
Her favorite theory is that in medieval times, so many feral dogs and cats died in the streets that when there was a downpour, the streets were flooded with the bodies -- as if they had rained down from the sky.