Word(s) With A Past: Left and Right as a Political Metaphor

As some of you may have noticed, here in the United States we’re coming to the end of a long, weird election season.  A lot of labels have been thrown about with little reference to what they mean or why. At some point, when I had become almost numb from the rhetoric, it dawned on me that I had no idea why we refer to liberals as the left and conservatives as the right. *  The answer turned out to be surprisingly simple.

In the early days of the first French Revolution,* members of the newly formed National Assembly chose their own seats.  As we all tend to do, they chose to sit next to people who shared their basic values. Most of the more radical Revolutionaries sat together on the left of the newly elected president of the assembly.  Supporters of the monarchy, presumably more conservative in the modern sense of the word,** clustered to his right.  More than 200 years later, a chance decision about seating remains one of our principal political metaphors.

* I think this response is closely related to the times when I struggled with a word so long that ALL the spellings look wrong. (This doesn’t  just happen to me, right?)

**An event to which the word simple is seldom applied.

***Though my guess is that most of them would fail the “family values” test.

Photograph copyright: popaukropa / 123RF Stock Photo





  1. Iris Seefeldt on October 29, 2016 at 3:49 pm

    This has been a satisfactory explanation, however, there is a third element we must now consider: Left Out. This has an other connotation; those who don’t know anymore where they belong as in “left in Outfield” since we are talking Baseball this week. Let us hope they can find their way back to the CENTER, which has an all together new meaning if you want to tackle that. Thanks to History.

    • pamela on October 30, 2016 at 12:43 am

      You’re asking hard questions again, Iris.

      There certainly are lots of layers of meaning to both right and left, some of which predate the French Revolution. (The “sinister” associations with being left-handed for instance.)

Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.