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Cack-handed

Q From Larry Nordell: This is from the Economist so I assume it must be some obscure Briticism: ‘And most recently, Mr Pitt has been stunningly cackhanded over the appointment of William Webster as head of the new Public Company Accounting Oversight Board’. What does cackhanded mean?

A It’s certainly British. It’s only obscure, though, if you’re from somewhere else, since it’s a well-known British informal term for somebody who is inept or clumsy. By extension, as I know to my cost, being of the sinistral variety myself, it means somebody left-handed, who does everything “backwards” and so looks clumsy or awkward. It first appeared in the middle of the nineteenth century.

The American Heritage Dictionary suggests it comes from Old Norse keikr, bent backwards, and other American dictionaries also suggest this. I disagree, as do most British works of reference. The direct association is with cack, another fine Old English term, for excrement or dung. Cachus was Old English for a privy, and both words come from Latin cacare, to defecate.

It almost certainly comes from the very ancient tradition, which has developed among peoples who were mainly right-handed, that one reserved the left hand for cleaning oneself after defecating and used the right hand for all other purposes. At various times this has been known in most cultures. Some consider it rude even to be given something using the left hand. So to be left-handed was to use the cack hand or be cack-handed.

There are similar terms in other languages, such as the French main de merde for somebody awkward or butter-fingered.

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
Page created 7 Dec. 2002

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Last modified: 7 December 2002.