Why Is A Left Handed Person Called A Southpaw? Origin Explained

Why is a left handed person called a southpaw? What does the word mean, and where did it come from? Read on to find out!

Why Is A Left Handed Person Called A Southpaw?

What Is A Southpaw?

A southpaw is simply a person who is left handed. The term is most often used in sports to describe a person who hits or throws with their left hand.

However, it can also be used outside of sports, for example to describe a musician. A southpaw guitarist will strum or pick the strings with their left hand.

Indeed, the largest specialist lefty guitar store in the world is called Southpaw Guitars!

Where Did The Term Southpaw Come From?

Why are lefties called southpaws? Here are 4 potential southpaw origin theories and sources that should help to clear up this question.

Southpaw Origin In Baseball

Although opinions vary, the word southpaw was originally believed to have arisen from the early days of baseball in the 19th century.

In the past, before lighting made night time games possible, the baseball field would be arranged with the batter facing to the east so that they wouldn’t be staring straight into the afternoon sun.

This arrangement meant that a left handed pitcher’s throwing arm would be facing the south side of the diamond.

Southpaw Baseball Origin

However, it was subsequently pointed out that several major league ball parks were not built with the batter facing to the east.

Southpaw Origin In Boxing

Other historians insist that the term actually originated from boxing, where in the early days of the sport, hitting an opponent with the left hand came to become known as punching using the south paw.

It is thought that the term was first coined during a bare-knuckle boxing fight in 1860. It was reported in the New York Herald that the winning fighter “planted his ‘south paw’ under [his opponent’s] chin, laying him out as flat as a pancake”.

In the movie Rocky, Sylvester Stallone’s character attempts to explain where southpaw boxing came from. Although, obviously this is not a source to be trusted! Just for fun…

Earliest Use In Publications

But wait, there’s another potential southpaw origin source!

In 1848, a political illustration was published showing future USA president Millard Fillmore lying black-eyed on the floor, having been knocked down by the Democratic presidential candidate Lewis Cass.

His speech bubble reads “Curse the Old hoss wot a south paw he has given me!“. Although, Fillmore had the last laugh after later defeating Cass at the ballots to become president.

Where Does Southpaw Come From

Fun Fact! If Lewis Cass had in fact defeated Millard Fillmore, then we would have had yet another name to add to the long, long list of left handed USA presidents!

Earliest Recorded Use of Southpaw

And we’re not quite finished yet! There actually is an even earlier recorded use of the term. Could this be the southpaw origin source?

If you cast your gaze back to the June 30th, 1813 issue of ‘The Tickler’, a Philadephia comic publication, there was a letter to the editor which read as follows…

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”

Don’t ask me to decipher this, but there is a clearly a definite referral to the left hand as being the ‘south paw’. The right hand is referred to as the ‘right paw’ rather than the ‘north paw’.

Although the exact reason for this is unknown, it has been suggested that various negative religious associations with being left handed could be the cause.

North has long been thought of as being the direction of heaven, and south the direction of hell. For centuries many people believed that lefties were evil, so this is definitely a plausible explanation.

And there you have it, the earliest known use of the term southpaw!

Southpaw Stance In Sports

What Does Southpaw Mean In Boxing?

In boxing, a southpaw fighter holds their right hand and foot forward and leads with right hand jabs. They will unleash their most powerful blows with their dominant left hand.

It is the normal stance for a left handed boxer.

It is also sometimes referred to as ‘unorthodox stance’, which probably doesn’t help with the negative associations with being left handed!

William ‘Bendigo’ Thomson is credited with having introduced southpaw stance in the early 19th century.

The opposite to southpaw stance in boxing is known as orthodox stance, and is an exact mirror image of this pose. So, left hand and foot forward, and saving the right hand for the more punishing blows.

Famous southpaw boxers include Manny Pacquiao, Naseem Hamed, Marvelous Martin Hagler, Pernell Whitaker and Joe Calzaghe.

What Does Southpaw Mean In Baseball?

In baseball, a southpaw pitcher is a player who throws with their left hand. A southpaw hitter is a player who swings from left to right.

Famous southpaw pitchers include Sandy Koufax (aka, the Left Arm of God), Robert Grove, Randy Johnson, Clayton Kershaw, and Steve Carlton. Well known southpaw hitters include Babe Ruth, Ted Williams, Barry Bonds, Lou Gehrig and Joe Jackson.

Although the term is rarely used, a right handed pitcher can be referred to as a northpaw.

Interestingly, there are no left handed catchers in major league baseball! Check out the video below to find out why.

Famous Left Handed Sports Players

  • American Football : Steve Young, Boomer Esiason, Michael Vick, Ken Stabler
  • Basketball : Bill Russell, David Robinson, Dave Cowens, Willis Reed, Artis Gilmore
  • Cricket : Sanath Jayasuriya, Adam Gilchrist, Kumar Sangakkara, SMathew Hayden
  • Golf : Phil Mickelson, Bubba Watson, Mike Weir, Bob Charles, Steve Flesch
  • Hockey : Wayne Gretsky, Cam Neely, Phil Esposito, Roman Turek
  • Tennis : Rafael Nadal, John McEnroe, Monica Seles, Martina Navratilova, Rod Laver

Do Southpaws Have An Advantage In Sports?

It is generally accepted that the rarity of southpaws gives them an advantage in certain sports, as right handed opponents are generally not used to taking on left handed players.

Studies have found that the advantage gained by southpaw athletes is more pronounced in sports where reaction times are limited, for example in tennis. It was found that the rate of left handed athletes increases as the time available to react decreased.

In the fastest sport analysed (baseball), it was found that a whopping 30% of top pitchers were southpaw players. When you consider that only 12% of the planet is left handed, that’s quite a statistic!

In the slowest sport (squash), only 9% of the best players were lefties.

Why are lefties called southpaws? Now that you know what southpaw means and where it came from, why not check out some of these other lefty-centric articles?

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Neal Author Bio
Neal has been playing guitar (left-handed!) for over 20 years, and has also worked in various roles within the guitar retail industry since 2012. In his spare time he loves to travel, ride bikes, and suck at videogames. More Info