Leftist tendencies | Paris, France

The above image captures part of the a warning sign painted at many pedestrian crossings in Paris that in its entirety reads “Danger a gauche” (Danger to the left).

The word ‘gauche’ is another fascinating case of seemingly mundane words’ having multiple and unrelated meanings and undergoing a curious transformation as they are adopted in another language. (Similarly to the word pedestrian.)

In French, the most common usage of the word gauche is to mean left, as in the opposite of right. As an extension to that, the word can also be employed to mean bent, twisted, slanted, or skewed. Interestingly, it also holds several other meanings that have nothing to do with relative directions or egocentric coordinates. It is also a synonym for embarrassed, clumsy, awkward, incompetent, timid and constrained, and it is also used in old expressions, to indicate a certain “irregularity”, as in “mariage de la main gauche” (marriage of the left hand), used in references to royals who marry commoners or to a couple who lives together without being married.

In English, the straight-forward meaning of the word as an indicator of relative direction has been completely lost, and ‘gauche’ means lacking social grace, sensitivity, acuteness, or tact. It is synonymous with awkward, clumsy, ungainly, gawky, unhandy and… maladroit (another word borrowed from French, in whose roots stand the words mal (‘ill’) and droit (“right”), the relative direction opposite of left.

It is fascinating how these two words’ meanings have transformed, from the simple  names for the two most common relative directions – left and right, which presumably have the same value, to become injected with meanings that unquestionably make one better than and preferable to the other. In contrast to the gawky gauche, the word droit in French has an air of a definitive superiority, both physical and moral: it is used not only to mean straight (not bent or crooked) but is also at the root of all words related to law and justice (as opposed to criminal, illegal and unjust). The case is not so different in English, where labeling something as right means it is correct and not wrong.

It doesn’t take too much imagination to see that these positive (for the right) and negative (for the left) connotations stem from the long-standing assumption that right-handedness is superior to left-handedness. Just think of the words dextrous (= skillful) and sinister (= evil), whose meanings have largely shifted from their Latin origins but retain their positive and negative connotation: dexter in Latin means right-hand and skillful, while sinistra indicates ‘on the left hand or side, hence unfavorable, injurious’.

All this ties in rather well, though most likely accidentally, with the pedestrian crossing signs in Paris, which inadvertently confirm the notion of the sinister left (where danger lurks) and the benevolent, just and virtuous right. Curiously enough, while walking around Paris, I didn’t see any such signs warning pedestrians of dangers coming from the right. This is perplexing, considering the fact that in about 66% of the world, including France, traffic is on the right and thus, pedestrians would normally have the habit of looking for oncoming vehicles to the left as they cross. By contrast, the pedestrian crossing signs in London – where traffic moves on the left, thus confusing and endangering the billions of roaming tourists who come from those 66% of right-traffic countries, seem neutral. They never tire of telling people to look either left or right, having thus surely saved thousands, if not millions, of lives (including mine at least a dozen times).

These were some of the thoughts that filled my head as I walked the streets around the Latin Quarter in Paris’s Left Bank (Rive Gauche), the part of the city to the south of where the Seine flows. It could perhaps serve as a small consolation and redemption for the bad reputation of the word gauche to note that the term Rive Gauche stands not only for the geographical area just mentioned but also for three exciting and decidedly not awkward concepts:

1. “Rive Gauche” or “Left Bank” refers to the Paris of an earlier era; the city of artists, writers and philosophers, including Pablo Picasso, Arthur Rimbaud, Paul Verlaine, Henri Matisse, Joan Miró, Jean-Paul Sartre, Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Gertrude Stein, James Joyce, Ezra Pound and all the rest of the artistic community that lived, worked and hung out around Montparnasse around the 1920s and 1930s. The phrase implies a sense of bohemianism and creativity.

2. In cinema, the term Left Bank refers to a group of filmmakers associated with the French New Wave of the 1950s and 1960s. Unlike the corresponding “right bank” group, which was made up of more famous and financially successful New Wave directors (Claude Chabrol, François Truffaut, and Jean-Luc Godard), the Left Bank directors (Chris Marker, Alain Resnais, Agnès Varda, Henri Colpi and Jacques Demy) had a “fondness for a kind of Bohemian life and an impatience with the conformity of the Right Bank, a high degree of involvement in literature and the plastic arts, and a consequent interest in experimental filmmaking”, as well as an identification with the political left, according to critic and curator Richard Roud.

3. Finally, Left Bank has also come to signify a particular look in fashion. This meaning was initiated by Yves Saint Laurent who in 1966 launched a ready-to-wear collection of that name, with which he reportedly sought to democratize fashion by taking clothes that had been, until then, worn exclusively by the lower classes, such as the leather jacket, and incorporating them into high fashion.

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