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How Does a Southpaw Orient Himself?

You got a problem with southpaws?

In the United States, we sometimes call a left-handed person a southpaw. The term comes from old-time baseball. Before we had bright lights, we played baseball in the afternoon, when the sun was in the west. To protect the batter’s eyes from the bright sunshine, baseball stadiums were always oriented to the east. In other words, the batter was facing east while the pitcher was facing west. If you’re facing west, your left hand is on the south side of your body. Hence, left-handed pitchers became southpaws. Why we don’t call right handers northpaws, I’ll never know.

But what about the term, “oriented to the east”? Isn’t that redundant? After all, the orient is the east. The term to get oriented also comes from olden days. Before compasses were in widespread use, it was difficult to figure out where you were in relation to the four cardinal directions. This was especially true if you were on open water or in the vast grasslands of the central United States. You had no landmarks to relate to. Without a compass, the easiest direction to find is the east. All you have to do is get up early and watch the sun rise. If you miss the sunrise, you can look for afternoon rainbows — they’re always to the east. Either way, if you can figure out where east is, you’ve got yourself oriented.

One of the (many) nice things about Denver is that the mountains are very visible to the west. If you’re lost, just look for the mountains — ¬†then you’ll know where west is and you can figure out the other cardinal directions. So, we orient ourselves by looking to the … occident. It seems like we should be saying that we occident ourselves.

And then there’s our baseball stadium in Denver. It’s oriented to the occident — so fans can look west and see our majestic mountains. So that means southpaws are now northpaws. It’s all very confusing. Maybe that’s why our baseball team lost 98 games this year.

I like to study word origins and the history of language and I’ll write about these topics occasionally on this website. If you have good word stories, please share them with me and I’ll write them up.

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