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dexterity

dexterity It is intriguing that, although this word derives from the Latin dexter, meaning ‘on the right’, its definition in The Shorter Oxford English Dictionary lists ‘right-handedness’ as only the fourth meaning, and describes that usage as ‘rare’. The more common meanings are:1. Manual skill, neat-handedness; hence, address in the use of the limbs and in bodily movements
2. Mental adroitness or skill; cleverness, address, ready tact. In a bad sense: Sharpness.
3. Handiness, conveniency.


Dexterity has clearly expanded its meaning to incorporate attributes that have generally been associated with right-handedness. The positive value of these attributes reflects the fact that the great majority of people are right-handed, and are more proficient at using the right hand than the left. This is especially evident in fine motor skills like writing, as well as in some skills, like throwing, which involve the whole arm. This gives rise to the first of the above definitions of dexterity as manual skill and neat-handedness. It is further generalized to mental qualities in the second definition.

About 10 percent of the population are left-handed, and are therefore more ‘dexterous’ with the left hand, while a few are approximately equally skilled with either hand, and are therefore termed ‘ambidextrous.’ Although handedness is probably innate, and possibly influenced genetically, it is possible for right-handers to acquire considerable dexterity (in the generalized sense) with the left hand, as in those who play musical instruments, such as the piano and violin, that require skilled action by both hands.

Other terms linked to handedness have acquired even more metaphorical significance. Sinister, the Latin for ‘left’, has taken on the meaning of evil-suggesting, or malignant. The term adroit, meaning dexterous or skilful, comes from the French à droit (‘according to the right’), while gauche, the French for ‘left’, has taken on the meaning of socially awkward, or tactless. The German word for ‘left’ is link, and the word linkisch has taken on the general meaning of awkward, while recht for ‘right’ means just or true, as does the word right in English. In Italian, the left hand is termed either the stanca, meaning tired, or the manca, meaning defective. These and countless examples from other languages testify to the universal preponderance of right-handers across all human cultures, and the linguistic prejudice directed against left-handers.

Although right-handers are indeed clumsy when using the left hand, there is no reason to suppose that left-handers themselves are especially awkward, except when using implements, like scissors, that are specifically designed for the right hand. In the Old Testament, Judges 20: 16, we read that out of 26 000 soldiers, 700 were left-handers who could ‘sling stones at an hair breadth, and not miss’. Dexterity, then, is not confined to the right-handed.

Michael Corballis


See also handedness.

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dexterity

dex·ter·i·ty / dekˈsteritē/ • n. skill in performing tasks, esp. with the hands: her dexterity with chopsticks | his record testifies to a certain dexterity in politics.

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dexterity

dexteritybanditti, bitty, chitty, city, committee, ditty, gritty, intercity, kitty, nitty-gritty, Pitti, pity, pretty, shitty, slitty, smriti, spitty, titty, vittae, witty •fifty, fifty-fifty, nifty, shifty, swiftie, thrifty •guilty, kiltie, silty •flinty, linty, minty, shinty •ballistae, Christie, Corpus Christi, misty, twisty, wristy •sixty •deity, gaiety (US gayety), laity, simultaneity, spontaneity •contemporaneity, corporeity, femineity, heterogeneity, homogeneity •anxiety, contrariety, dubiety, impiety, impropriety, inebriety, notoriety, piety, satiety, sobriety, ubiety, variety •moiety •acuity, ambiguity, annuity, assiduity, congruity, contiguity, continuity, exiguity, fatuity, fortuity, gratuity, ingenuity, perpetuity, perspicuity, promiscuity, suety, superfluity, tenuity, vacuity •rabbity •improbity, probity •acerbity • witchetty • crotchety •heredity •acidity, acridity, aridity, avidity, cupidity, flaccidity, fluidity, frigidity, humidity, hybridity, insipidity, intrepidity, limpidity, liquidity, lividity, lucidity, morbidity, placidity, putridity, quiddity, rabidity, rancidity, rapidity, rigidity, solidity, stolidity, stupidity, tepidity, timidity, torpidity, torridity, turgidity, validity, vapidity •commodity, oddity •immodesty, modesty •crudity, nudity •fecundity, jocundity, moribundity, profundity, rotundity, rubicundity •absurdity • difficulty • gadgety •majesty • fidgety • rackety •pernickety, rickety •biscuity •banality, duality, fatality, finality, ideality, legality, locality, modality, morality, natality, orality, reality, regality, rurality, tonality, totality, venality, vitality, vocality •fidelity •ability, agility, civility, debility, docility, edibility, facility, fertility, flexility, fragility, futility, gentility, hostility, humility, imbecility, infantility, juvenility, liability, mobility, nihility, nobility, nubility, puerility, senility, servility, stability, sterility, tactility, tranquillity (US tranquility), usability, utility, versatility, viability, virility, volatility •ringlety •equality, frivolity, jollity, polity, quality •credulity, garrulity, sedulity •nullity •amity, calamity •extremity • enmity •anonymity, dimity, equanimity, magnanimity, proximity, pseudonymity, pusillanimity, unanimity •comity •conformity, deformity, enormity, multiformity, uniformity •subcommittee • pepperminty •infirmity •Christianity, humanity, inanity, profanity, sanity, urbanity, vanity •amnesty •lenity, obscenity, serenity •indemnity, solemnity •mundanity • amenity •affinity, asininity, clandestinity, divinity, femininity, infinity, masculinity, salinity, trinity, vicinity, virginity •benignity, dignity, malignity •honesty •community, immunity, importunity, impunity, opportunity, unity •confraternity, eternity, fraternity, maternity, modernity, paternity, taciturnity •serendipity, snippety •uppity •angularity, barbarity, bipolarity, charity, circularity, clarity, complementarity, familiarity, granularity, hilarity, insularity, irregularity, jocularity, linearity, parity, particularity, peculiarity, polarity, popularity, regularity, secularity, similarity, singularity, solidarity, subsidiarity, unitarity, vernacularity, vulgarity •alacrity • sacristy •ambidexterity, asperity, austerity, celerity, dexterity, ferrety, posterity, prosperity, severity, sincerity, temerity, verity •celebrity • integrity • rarity •authority, inferiority, juniority, majority, minority, priority, seniority, sonority, sorority, superiority •mediocrity • sovereignty • salubrity •entirety •futurity, immaturity, impurity, maturity, obscurity, purity, security, surety •touristy •audacity, capacity, fugacity, loquacity, mendacity, opacity, perspicacity, pertinacity, pugnacity, rapacity, sagacity, sequacity, tenacity, veracity, vivacity, voracity •laxity •sparsity, varsity •necessity •complexity, perplexity •density, immensity, propensity, tensity •scarcity • obesity •felicity, toxicity •fixity, prolixity •benedicite, nicety •anfractuosity, animosity, atrocity, bellicosity, curiosity, fabulosity, ferocity, generosity, grandiosity, impecuniosity, impetuosity, jocosity, luminosity, monstrosity, nebulosity, pomposity, ponderosity, porosity, preciosity, precocity, reciprocity, religiosity, scrupulosity, sinuosity, sumptuosity, velocity, verbosity, virtuosity, viscosity •paucity • falsity • caducity • russety •adversity, biodiversity, diversity, perversity, university •sacrosanctity, sanctity •chastity •entity, identity •quantity • certainty •cavity, concavity, depravity, gravity •travesty • suavity •brevity, levity, longevity •velvety • naivety •activity, nativity •equity •antiquity, iniquity, obliquity, ubiquity •propinquity

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