Word Routes

Exploring the pathways of our lexicon

Is "Southpaw" from Boxing or Baseball?

With the boxing movie Southpaw opening, it's a good time to ponder where the term "southpaw" came from as an epithet for a left-hander. Baseball and boxing have both used the term for a long time to label lefty athletes, but which came first?

I look into this question in my latest column for the Wall Street Journal, but in fact I've been on the trail of the origins of "southpaw" for a while now. Back in 2009, I discovered what still remains the earliest known use of the term. It appears in the June 30, 1813 issue of The Tickler, a comic Philadelphia newspaper. The context is a bit hard to understand, as it's in a letter to the editor that uses peculiar dialect spelling for the sake of now-opaque humor:

Dear Toby,
Being in a room the other night where HONEST BOB happened to come in contact with a late number of your useful paper, his Irish eye in the general glance over it chanced to rest on "Bow, Vow, Vow," when the Pat-riot in the fulness of his HONEST heart, exclaimed, "Arrah, by my shoal these Yaunkees are the divils boys at spaking V for W, so much that by the hill o'hoath in their very dogs have pecked it up, for instead of barking, Bow, Wow, Wow, as they ought it's — it's — (growing impatient) — arrah luk here mon, and convince yourself," said he, holding up the Tickler, in the right paw, between the ceiling and the floor, and with the south paw pointing to the "bow, vow, vow."

Regardless of whatever else is going on in the letter, it's clear that "right paw" is distinguished from "south paw" as joking descriptions for a person's right and left hands. It's notable that here, as in other early examples, we don't see "north paw," only "south paw."

Since a person's right hand was in a sense the default in a society that saw left-handedness as somehow suspect, it may help explain how the left hand is the one that develops its own special term. But why equate "left" with "south"? John Thorn, Major League Baseball's official historian, suggested one historical possibility to me. "North is the direction for heaven, south the direction for hell," said Thorn (who, before he was a baseball historian, pursued doctoral research in 17th-century metaphysical poetry!). "North and right are on the side of the angels. South and left are on the side of the devils." Note the Latin word for "left" is sinister.

Boxers and other rough-and-tumble types picked up the "southpaw" terminology over the course of the 19th century, well before baseball became the national pastime. An 1848 political cartoon demonstrates how the term got used pugilistically, with Democratic presidential candidate Lewis Cass slugging his Whig opponents, Zachary Taylor and Millard Fillmore, with the latter shouting out, "Curse the Old hoss, wot a south paw he has given me!"

"Who says gas? Or the Democratic b-hoy." Abel & Durang, Philadelphia, 1848.

The earliest known example in baseball comes a decade later, in a newspaper of the time, The New York Atlas. Baseball historians have combed the pages of The Atlas as a source of reports on some of the earliest ballgames played between clubs in the New York City area. Tom Shieber, the senior curator at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum in Cooperstown, N.Y., came across a "southpaw" reference when he was researching the paper in the 1990s:

Hallock, a "south paw," let fly a good ball into right field.
New York Atlas, Sept. 12, 1858

Notably, Hallock was a first baseman, which is one of many damning pieces of evidence disproving an old story in baseball that presupposes that pitchers were the first players to be called "southpaws." The story goes that left-handed pitchers had their pitching hands facing south in 19th-century ballparks built with home plate facing west. Historians of the game dismiss that explanation as nothing more than colorful myth-making (not uncommon for baseball!).

Boxing continued to dominate baseball in attestations of the word "southpaw" through the 1860s and '70s, but in the 1880s, "southpaw" began to become a baseball writer's cliche when referring to a left-handed pitcher (very often in the phrase "southpaw twirler"). As baseball took the term over (and developed its own story for where it came from), it remained important in boxing to describe not just those who fight left-handed but the unorthodox stance that they favor. That stance plays a key role in the new Southpaw movie, and it's also discussed in its cinematic precursor, Rocky.

Rocky Balboa, played by Sylvester Stallone in the 1976 classic, even gives his own Philadephia-centric explanation for where the word comes from, though it's suspiciously similar to the baseball legend involving the orientation of old ballfields:

"You know where southpaw comes from? I'll tell ya. A long time ago there was this guy, maybe a couple a hundred years ago, he was fighting around, I think it was around Philadelphia, and his arm — he was left-handed — and his arm was facing toward New Jersey, you see? And that's south. So then naturally they call him south paw. You see? South paw, South Jersey, South Camden, south paw. You know what I mean?"

Take that with a grain of salt, of course, but considering that the earliest example I found comes from a Philly newspaper more than two centuries ago, who knows exactly how those Philadelphians might have come up with the term? It's safe to say, though, that when they started using "southpaw," they were swinging their fists, not baseball bats.

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Ben Zimmer is language columnist for The Wall Street Journal and former language columnist for The Boston Globe and The New York Times Magazine. He has worked as editor for American dictionaries at Oxford University Press and as a consultant to the Oxford English Dictionary. In addition to his regular "Word Routes" column here, he contributes to the group weblog Language Log. He is also the chair of the New Words Committee of the American Dialect Society. Click here to read more articles by Ben Zimmer.