Why Are Left-Handed People Called Southpaws?

Notable southpaw Tommy John pitching for the New York Yankees in the 1980s.
Notable southpaw Tommy John pitching for the New York Yankees in the 1980s. / Focus on Sport/Getty Images

While the term southpaw officially applies to any left-handed person, you probably hear it most often in baseball, where left-handedness can really impact a player’s game (for better or worse).

It’s generally assumed that the term originated within the sport—a theory that's supported by this pretty convincing origin story: During the 19th century, baseball diamonds were built so that batters faced east, away from the setting sun. Pitchers faced west, which meant a left-handed pitcher threw with the arm on the south side of the mound. (That doesn’t address where paw came from, though it’s been used to mean hand since at least the 15th century.)

There are two problems with this explanation. First, as History.com points out, plenty of professional baseball stadiums didn’t follow this directional orientation. Of course, one could easily argue that southpaw may have been coined at a stadium that did—like Chicago’s West Side Park—and then simply caught on throughout the sport.

But that brings us to the second problem with southpaw’s apocryphal inception. The earliest known written use of the word didn’t come from baseball; it came from a June 1813 issue of a satirical Philadelphia newspaper called The Tickler, which mentions a “right paw” and a “south paw.” Baseball, for reference, didn’t officially begin until 1846.

Southpaw showed up again in Philadelphia in an 1848 political cartoon poking fun at the presidential race. Democratic candidate Lewis Cass delivers a left-handed blow to Zachary Taylor, while a black-eyed Millard Fillmore lies on the ground muttering, “Curse the Old hoss, wot a south paw he has given me!”

A political cartoon believed to have been drawn by E. F. Durang. (Zachary Taylor won, by the way.)
A political cartoon believed to have been drawn by E. F. Durang. (Zachary Taylor won, by the way.) / Abel & Durang, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division // No Known Restrictions on Publication

The first known reference to a baseball southpaw came 10 years later, in an 1858 New York Atlas article about a batter who “let fly a good ball into right field.” According to The Wall Street Journal language columnist Ben Zimmer, southpaw didn’t really become popular in baseball until the 1880s. Before that, it was more commonly used to describe a left-handed boxer or left-handed punch—much like Cass’s jabs in the cartoon.

In short, it doesn’t seem likely that southpaw originally described left-handed baseball pitchers, or even left-handed baseball players at all. There’s a slightly better chance that the term started in a boxing ring, and that the combative nature of that sport could help explain how the animalistic paw came into play.

But without baseball diamonds, how did south end up associated with left? Major League Baseball’s official historian John Thorn thinks it’s related to the once-popular belief that left-handedness was a sign of evil. “North is the direction for heaven, south the direction for hell,” Thorn told Zimmer. “North and right are on the side of the angels. South and left are on the side of the devils.” If that theory is correct, we’re probably lucky people decided to go with southpaw instead of devilpaw.

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