“Left” and “Right”

Sometimes one need look at the definitions of just one word in English to be reminded of how dizzyingly complex the language can be.  For example, you might pause for a moment and consider how many denotations and connotations there are of the word, “right.”

Common lore and the OED online suggest that the origin of “Right” as opposed to “Left” on a political spectrum lies in Continental (more specifically, French) parliamentary government and may have sprung literally from seating arrangements.  At any rate, one has to go deep into the OED definitions to find the reference to this use of “right” (and, by extension, a parallel use of “left”):

d. Politics. Orig. in Continental legislative chambers, the party or parties of conservative principles. (See

CENTRE n. 15.) Now applied generally to any political group holding conservative principles.

1825 Ann. Reg. 1824 152/1 M. de la Bourdonnaye (leader of the extreme right). 1830 Ann. Reg. 1829 157/2 All the new ministers belonged to the extreme right. 1848 MRS. GASKELL Let. 2 Nov. (1966) 60, I never can ascertain what I am in politics; and veer about from extreme Right,{em}no, I don’t think I ever go as far as the extreme Left. 1887 Harper’s Mag. Jan. 180/1 The political differences between the two great parties, the parliamentary Right and Left. 1940 W. TEMPLE Thoughts in War-Time iii. 24 The Right tends to have a fuller sense of historical continuity than the Left. 1954 KOESTLER Invisible Writing xxxvi. 385 The trial of the so-called ‘Anti-Soviet Block of Rights and Trotskyists’ took place in Moscow.1955 Times 23 May 11/7 There is much division among the delegates of free countries on how to deal with the Left and Right dictatorship delegations. 1960 O. MANNING Great Fortune xviii. 220 We did nothing to establish a liberal policy that could save the country from either extremity{em}Left or Right. 1969 A. G. FRANK Latin Amer. xix. 316 The current wave of government repression against the Left need not mean a permanent move to the Right. 1974 J. WHITE tr. Poulantzas’s Fascism & Dictatorship IV. 224 In the struggle against the Left Opposition..the Comintern took a turn to the ‘right’.
* * *

A question for those interested in both language and politics is whether “left” and “right” really mean much in American politics anymore.  In one sense, the words still convey much meaning, insofar as people’s brains react to “left” and “right” when the words are uttered by pundits or appear in print.  Further, politicians and citizens may at least pretend, and perhaps pretend sincerely, to place themselves on some kind of political spectrum that seems to relate to beliefs, policies, and actions.
However, as an English professor who is an engaged but purely amateur observer of politics, I no longer find “left” and “right” to be useful, dependable, or accurate descriptors.  For example, if “Right” connotes “Conservatism,” what exactly is being “conserved” by most politicians on the “Right” or by a radio-talker like Rush Limbaugh?  When the “Right” was in control of Congress and the Presidency, they were no more fiscally “conservative” than the Left, and as far as Limbaugh goes, here’s a question that may cut to the quick: What would Dwight Eisenhower have thought of Limbaugh’s rants and personality?
By the same token, someone like Keith Olbermann is considered to represent the “Left.” But he works for MSNBC, which, circuitously at least, is owned by General Electric, a corporate name that doesn’t exactly conjure images of Karl Marx.  Moreover, Olbermann’s petty spats with an alleged “Conservative” gabber like Bill O’Reilly do not a Leftist make.
But these observations are mere tentative probings from a political amateur; they are at best the beginning of an analysis of such words as “Right” and “Left,” which may seem to denote and connote much, but which, on second, third, and fourth glance, may actually mean as little an nonsense-syllables or “empty signifiers.”

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