“But which side are we supposed to walk on, Eddie?” I was asked by an exasperated American recently. She did not say “in this Goddam country” but I could tell she felt that way. The fact is that, while it is absolutely clear which side of the road we drive on, there is no rule or consensus about walking along what we call the pavement, they refer to as the sidewalk. Because we drive on the left we might be expected to walk on that side, but many people have an natural inclination to veer to the right. Add to this our natural diffidence manifested in an “After you…no after you” culture and many of us end up shuffling and shimmying as someone approaches us and we are not sure – literally – which way to turn.
I often tell people that anthropologists say that societies in the early stages of development tend to travel on the left-hand side and later often change to the right. The reason has to do with defence, particularly self-defence. If you are riding along the road, you would tend to use the left-hand side if you were defending yourself with a sword (or a club of some sort) because you would wield it more effectively with your right hand if you were trying to hit or stab someone coming towards you, manoeuvring your weapon away from rather than across your body. When people came to use firearms, however, they would tend to shoot across their bodies rather than away from them, so would operate more effectively on the right-hand side of the road. Napoleon instructed his troops to march on the right side of the road when they were conquering Europe for this very reason and it must have developed naturally as the wagon trains pushed inland into the new interior of America and white men used their rifles and muskets to shoot at anyone with a darker skin and/or perceived evil intentions.
Of course, being an island that has not been conquered since William the Conqueror arrived from France in 1066, long before the days of firearms, we remained on the left-hand side and, moreover, exported the habit to many countries in our empire. Most of Africa, Asia and Australasia drive on the left like the British, although this was not always a case of following our example. The Japanese Samurai warrior marched on the left to use his sword more effectively and so the country still drives on that side. Roughly half the countries of the world do so, in fact, although they tend to be those with fewer cars on the road. The British (and Irish) are not unique, therefore, although it might seem like that to the European or American visitor.
But what if you are left-handed people sometimes reply, when I explain this. The fact is that you weren’t, if you knew what was good for you. There was a great prejudice against left-handedness and this has been used to explain the stutter suffered by King George the Sixth, the Queen’s father, who was forced to use his right hand when naturally inclined to use his left. At least, that is the explanation given in The King’s Speech film: even monarchs can be portrayed as victims of prejudice if it helps the story. If people are sceptical of this, I simply point out that this ancient prejudice is reflected in our language. The Latin word for right is dexter which naturally gives us dexterity and dextrous. And the Latin word for left? Sinister.
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