Why "hand" for direction?

You hear it all the time. “Make a right hand turn”. “Look on the left hand side of the screen”. This from full grown adults. I can understand teaching children left from right but is “hand” really necessary? Hell, I’ve even heard people talk about their “left hand shoe”! Maybe it’s a nitpick but it bothers the hell out of me. Why do people do this?

Short answer is that we’ve been doing it for over a thousand years, so it’s pretty firmly embedded into our language. Plus right side might be confused with correct side, so that’s an additional consideration.

I’m all for deleting “left” and “right” from the language (as used in directional sense) and just using “port” and “starboard” instead.

MAD Magazine once gave a clearly memorable description. It went something like this:

Port means the left side. Once you remember that, there is only one other side left. Starboard is left.

It’s like people saying “the truck was red in color”. OK, just what else is a truck going to be red in? I think some people just think the extra words sound more official.

LOL. It probably wouldn’t stop people from saying Port hand and Starboard hand.

Maybe the truck was red in the morning and tall in the afternoon. Or red in Denver and slow in Atlanta. One must specify clearly.

I don’t know how all the rest of you decide which is “right” and which is “left” but I know that my dominant hand that I write with is my right HAND. So any thought about right or left gets channeled through what I do with my hands. For that reason, talking about “right hand” and “left hand” makes complete sense.

Maybe this makes me weird, I dunno. I do remember reading a story as a kid about an illiterate young man who wanted to join the army and couldn’t because he didn’t know his right from his left. A kindly person helped him learn by putting a piece of straw in his right boot and hay in his left and said “straw foot, hay foot” over and over, then started substituting right and left for straw and hay. Being a fine agriculturalist despite his lack of literacy, the potential recruit got it.

I actually did something a little like that with my son to teach him left from right as a very young child - he had a birthmark on his right side and long before he started writing I taught him that the birthmark side was his right side. It helped a lot when he was a little kid, but as an adult he’s just like the rest of us, mostly getting left and right correctly but occasionally treating “left” as his “other right.”

I can get on board with that. :laughing: When on land, my dad, who was an avid sailor, often used port and starboard to indicate which side of something. He also called any bathroom “the head”.

Really? You’re a full grown adult and you don’t know left from right without saying “hand”? And that nonsense story about an army recruit who didn’t know right from left? No, he wasn’t illiterate, he was retarded.

Now that this is still on my mind I’m wondering if this is peculiar to English. Do other languages use “hand” the same way?

Not that I can think of for other European languages. But if you’re lost in a European city and asking someone for directions, what are they going to use to indicate a direction, if not their hands?

A taxi driver once told me that a surprising number of passengers couldn’t tell left from right.

“Turn left at the bottom of the hill. Oh, sorry, I meant the other way.”

Tattoos help woman distinguish between left and right: Why it’s a common problem

Almost 15% of the general population reported having trouble identifying left from right, according to a study published last fall in the Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology.

Previous research has put the number as high as a quarter of college students and a third of adults. One early study concluded right-left confusion “occurs often in adults, even of superior intellect.” Women appear to be more susceptible to it than men, another found.

Their lips. Seriously, many cultures use their lips to point.

Good lord! I’m about to give up faith in humanity.

No, it’s not a matter of being mentally deficient in the ordinary sense. There is a kind of dyslexia that makes it difficult for a person to keep straight which is the right side and which is the left side. They are intelligent in any ordinary sense:


Furthermore, there are languages without any words for left and right:

My OP was asking about why normal people use the word “hand” when giving directions. I find it childish. For others who cannot distinguish left from right I still don’t see how the word “hand” has any purpose.

I think we say “right-hand” in English to differentiate right vs. left from right vs. wrong.
As in: “Look to the right side of the road. No, to the left. The left side is the right side - the right side is the wrong side.”

What is this, the 3 Stooges?

Trying to persuade other people to not use a word or phrase they’ve used all their life is generally useless. There are lots of cases where I don’t like the common way something is said. I’ve learned that I can’t change what people say.

Please note that in my previous post I was replying to Peanuthead’s calling a person who has problems with right and left “retarded”. I was not talking about why people use the word “hand” in talking about right and left. Having problems with distinguishing right and left is about dyslexia, not about not being intelligent. There are intelligent people with dyslexia.

Thanks for being so quick to dismiss what you don’t understand, with a pejorative to boot.

The concept of “handedness” is tied to having a strong dominant hand. For those of us who don’t have a strong dominant hand, the association between “left” and “right” as a matter of direction can be quite weak, and visual or verbal cues may be of assistance in using the concepts of right and left.