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In a right-handed world, why is a man’s billfold pocket on the left side?

Dear Cecil:

Lefties, southpaws, sinistrals, and other right-brained folk have to put up with right-handed design in everything from school desks to revolving doors to bound books. Given our minority status (though exactly how minor, no one seems to know … do you?), I can almost understand the dearth of left-handed fielder's gloves and scissors. But one major omission in the anti-lefty campaign puzzles me. I stuff my billfold into my pocket every day with amazing ease; if there is only one back pocket, it's on the left, and that's also where you'll find the button or flap to slow down the pickpockets. How in the world did Fashion, the Right-Handed Establishment, and Levi Strauss manage to do such an obviously levophilic thing?

Andy W., Washington, D.C.

Illustration by Slug Signorino

Cecil replies:

Pockets have always tended to be placed on the left side, for reasons that have little to do with the free expression of minority rights. The Roman toga is said to have had just one pocket, which was invariably on the left, and in fact the Latin word and latter-day heraldic term sinister, “on the left side,” is supposed to have derived from siniis, “pocket side.” No one knows who decided to put the wallet pocket on the left (wallet pockets and hip pockets in general came into fashion in the 1890s), but the reason for doing so is obvious: you extract your wallet from your pocket with your left hand, but you fish the money out and fork it over with your right. By such means are lefties induced to cooperate with a right-handed world.

Wallet pockets aren’t the only example of deceptively even-handed gestures to lefties. The design of most telephones (as exhibited in such features as cord placement) is intended to encourage the user to pick up the receiver with the left hand — at first glance, another sop to southpaws. However, if a lefty tries to jot down a note while on the phone, he discovers who the real beneficiary is: right-handed writers, who don’t need to clumsily shift hands.

The only important mechanical device I know of that consistently favors lefties is the computer keyboard. Anyone who’s ever pondered the standard QWERTY key arrangement, though, can form his own opinion about whether the inventor was trying to help out lefties or just nuts.

Estimates of the number of lefties in the world vary widely; 8-10 percent is the most commonly accepted figure. At least one researcher has claimed the number would be as high as 34 percent were it not for coercion by parents, primary school teachers, and other instruments of juvenile terror. There’s a revolutionary movement here waiting to be born.

Out of left field

Dear Cecil:

Your discussion of left-handed fashions contains an error. The hip pocket on men’s trousers appears to have originated during the latter part of the Civil War as officers switched from the long, formal frock coat, which contained pockets in the coat’s tails, to the shorter sack coat, which was similar in cut and length to the modern sports coats. Pockets were added to the trousers to make up for the scarcity of pockets on the sack coat. In the numerous document specimens I have examined, the pockets on the hip of Civil War officers’ trousers were invariably on the right side. In addition, trousers issued by the U.S. Army during the 1870-1880 period had hip pockets on both sides. My guess is that the left-only hip pocket was just a bit of fashion variation that happened to catch on.

On the topic of the frequency of left-handedness, it might be observed that many lefties, particularly those not genetically related to another left-handed person, show evidence of ambidexterity, or skill in using both hands. Some psychologists believe that the ambidextrous left-hander might actually have been a right-hander but for minor biochemical “accidents” during development. Such people may prefer one hand for writing and another for throwing, making it hard to establish the “true” frequency of left-handedness.

— Michael C., Elmhurst, Illinois

Cecil replies:

The hip pocket may have been invented by U.S. Army tailors, but according to most fashion historians it didn’t become generally fashionable until the 1890s. The custom of putting your wallet in your left hip pocket depends on your having a wallet, as opposed to the larger billfold, which 19th-century men kept in one of their inside coat pockets. In prewallet days it wasn’t important where you put the hip pockets, but today it’s clearly more sensible to place the main one on the left.

You’re right about the difficulty of establishing true left-handedness; for that matter, it’s difficult to establish true right-handedness. One researcher estimates that if you considered a wide range of motor skills — writing, throwing, batting, eating, and so on — only about 7.5 percent of the population would turn out to be “pure” right-handers.

Moreover, there’s some dispute about what true left-handedness means. A few years ago researchers at the University of Pennsylvania claimed to be able to detect two kinds of left-handed writers — those who mirror the way right-handers hold their pencils, and those who “hook” when they write, i.e., they curl their hands around so the pencil points toward the bottom of the page. The latter group, which is thought to comprise about 60 percent of all left-handed writers, is considered the hard-core element, in the sense that their neurological organization (according to the theory, at least) is substantially different from that of the general run of mankind.

You undoubtedly recall that humans have what we call “contralateral neural control,” in which the left side of the brain controls the right side of the body and vice versa. In addition, in most people — righties and nonhooking lefties, anyway — the writing hand is located on the opposite side of the body from the brain’s language center. In hooking left-handers, though, the writing hand and the language center supposedly are both located on the left side.

This means one side of the brain is taking care of business on both sides of the body (writing on the left, everything else on the right), which means it has to work harder than usual, which means it ends up either (a) extremely adept or (b) overwhelmed. This may explain the statistically documented fact that lefties tend to be either geniuses or idiots. I should know, because I’m a hooking left-hander myself.

Cecil Adams

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