This is both an EL&U question and a FL&U question, so I've double-posted accordingly to maximize visibility.

Here's the thing that struck me as odd today.

In English, we would say "his right arm." But we would also say "he has the right to do something."

In French, we would say "le bras droit." And we would say "Il a le droit de faire quelque chose."

So, given that the English "right" is not (so far as I can tell) in any way similar to the French "droit," how is it that they both happen to have these two disparate meanings in both languages? I'm inclined to say it's not a coincidence. How would that happen?

  • I don't know for english, but gauche has also two meanings in french.
    – mouviciel
    Commented Jan 7, 2013 at 0:00
  • The same is true with "bien antérieure" ("well before," i.e. a long time before).
    – user1778
    Commented Jan 8, 2013 at 7:05
  • This is a good question. Such developments tell us either that a concept is fundamental or that there's a genetic relationship, both good pieces of info to have...
    – Luke Sawczak
    Commented Apr 15, 2018 at 12:39
  • An interesting fact about the word "left": In Portuguese, the the word used for "left handed" is "canhoto" which derives from "cane" in Latin meaning "dog". So, a left-handed person was originally referred to as "like a dog", that is "clumsy". Commented Dec 4, 2018 at 17:59
  • Same question on Linguistics SE! See Connection between right (opposite of left) and right (legal term)?
    – user31412
    Commented Oct 11, 2022 at 9:27

4 Answers 4


Droit et right ont la même racine indo-européenne, ainsi que l'allemand Recht, l'espagnol derecho, l'italien destro et les mots équivalents dans beaucoup d'autres langues issues du germanique ou du latin.
La consultation d'un dictionnaire - ou en ligne des différents wiktionnaires - indique que l'indo-européen h₃reǵtós (aller en ligne droite) a donné le germanique rehtaz, le grec ὀρεκτός d'où a dérivé le latin dirēctus et le français droit.

Both words have the same Proto-Indo-European root meaning "move in a straight line" that has given the Germanic rehtaz (hence the German Recht and the English right), the Greek ὀρεκτός and latin dirēctus (hence the French droit, Spanish derecho, etc...).

See Proto-Indo-European h₃reǵtós on wiktionary.

  • Interesting affairs, which enlights my own answer with the the actual root I'm talking about. (The “how comes disparate meanings are matching” part of the question still holds, as these senses probably didn't exist at that time.) Commented Jan 6, 2013 at 8:14
  • @NikanaReklawyks:Meanings don't seem to be disparate at all. Both meanings existed in the Indo-European root which meant to straighten, direct. Position : right handed people being by far the most numerous in the human species they will use their right arm to direct to something. Law: to straighten is to make right something that isn't right.
    – None
    Commented Jan 6, 2013 at 8:35
  • Si on veut être plus précis, droit ne vient pas directement de *h₃reǵ- mais du Latin directus formé de rectus qui vient bien de *h₃reǵ- et de dis-, qui vient de *dwis et a ici le sens de plus, encore, davantage.
    – Evpok
    Commented Jan 6, 2013 at 11:18
  • @Laure: My point exactly. Commented Jan 6, 2013 at 13:57
  • Best answer, along with what Eleonora says about the left side being associated with the contrary (latin sinister, which gave sinister or French sinistre). Left is "Gauche" in French, and it both means "left arm" and "not right, clumsy, awkward", so the opposition left/right occur in both senses (and this maybe comes from indo european as well. At least it's the case since Latin).
    – Shautieh
    Commented Sep 3, 2015 at 16:34

The same reasons gave the same meanings to a similar concept in both languages, may I guess.

Both senses are driven by the correctness of something. The right to do something is obviously matching the fact that it is right for one to do so, and on the same hand, it's the right arm that shall be used to do anything among decent men. Not that I'm able to document it in any way, but i'm pretty sure left-handed people were hunted down for sorcery or something in some ancient time.

Similarly, the rightful mind matches un esprit droit (the opposite of un esprit mal tourné), still within the same semantic concept.

  • 6
    Is the same pattern present in non-IE languages?
    – Evpok
    Commented Jan 6, 2013 at 18:15

We have a similar usage in Italian for the word 'sinistro', from 'sinistra' (left in English, gauche in French): 'sinistro', just like the English word 'sinister', indicates something "threatening or portending evil, wicked, bad", so I suppose it may be the same principle underneath this form of double usage in Italian, French and English (and many more languages): just like the right hand is the hand of any pure action (religiously speaking) and skills and, more precisely, the Hand of God, the left one is associated with suspicious behavior and has become metaphor for everything that's out of the norm.


Latin is the root that I know of - certainly re 'sinistra/left'. And it's from there that the connotations left=shady and to be suspicious of, or unlucky'. That's why left handed people have had such a bad time over the ages. And that's why don't shake hands with our left hand.

Droit comes from the Latin for 'direct' and, in Greek and Latin, their words and phrases were often metaphorical, so a good man would speak the truth; be direct; be on a true course - a direct line, like an arrow. Sharp. Adroit (à droite). On the 'Right team' as opposed to the 'Left team'. A professional, skilled, to be trusted - therefore 'right'. Like a ruler (rectus), unbending. All sorts of metaphors and similes connect up. And 'having the right to do something/having rights' may come from having 'straight/unbending morals'and therefore the moral right?

  • From the 6th to the 8th, from neutral directus, from the meaning of justice to the one about a body of laws. Yes, moral and just, but by virtue of those principles, not because you are so, although "être dans son droit" feels close enough (have justice on one's side etc.). Note also right as correct (like that's right in English) existed in Fr. but was lost early on, yet the property of following what is correct remains. Interesting.
    – user3177
    Commented Jan 12, 2016 at 18:44

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