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The Spanish word for left

Basque loanwords abound in contemporary Spanish. They include caspa, dandruff, manteca, lard (origin of mantequilla, butter), pestaña, eyelash (and now ‘tab’ in the sense of internet browser), and páramo, moorland, alongside many other less evocative terms.

But I was particularly struck by two borrowings from Basque, both of which relate to the idea of ‘left’. Now, most Romance languages use a form of the Latin word dexter to say ‘the right’ – French droite, for example, Italian diestra, or the Spanish derecha.

The Spanish word for left, however, has nothing to do with the Latin word sinistro. It is izquierda, a very un-Latin looking term. And, indeed, it came from the Basque ezkerra, meaning left.

Likewise zurdo, left-handed. The etymology here is less unequivocal, but it seems most likely to have come from a pre-roman word related to the Basque zur “stingy, miserly”, or zurrun “inflexible, hard”.

This is not the place to go into the (fascinating) question of how left-handed people (such as myself) have long been associated with all things sinister.

But I thought it was interesting that zurdo had its roots in hardness, whilst the English ‘left’ evolved from Old English lyft, which meant ‘soft, weak’ (‘right’ itself developed from Old English riht, which meant “to lead straight; to guide; to rule”.)

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