Yet another homeschool-inspired Word of the Week–this one from my daughter, who bounced out to the kitchen the other day to say, “Do you know where the word sinister comes from?”
To which I replied, stopping what I was doing, “No! Tell me!” And so she did. 😀 (I adore my word-loving children, LOL.)
So apparently sinister comes Latin by way of Greek and literally means “from the left.” As soon as she said that, I said, “Of course!” I’m sure we’ve all heard the medieval superstition about the left side being unlucky–which was why left-handed children for centuries were forced to use their right hand in school.
But I hadn’t realized the full scope–and the complication–of this. Apparently this particular movement of “from the left” to “unlucky” and finally “evil” started with omen-reading. Greeks would always face north when reading omens. And so, things like bird flights seen on the left were considered bearers of ill-tidings and misfortune. However, Romans actually often faced south…and when they did so, omens seen on the left side were actually considered favorable! So in Latin, this word can actually mean two opposite things–the Greek-inspired “unfortunate” as well as their own “fortunate.” How confusing must that be?
Sinister entered English in the 15th century with the meaning of “prompted by malice, intending to deceive.” This meaning was directly influenced by the idea of something unfavorable coming from the left-hand side. But by the end of the century, the meaning we still know today–evil–had taken hold.