Updated: Jan 31, 2022
Many of us have heard the term southpaw, but what does southpaw mean and where did the word originate?
Origin of Southpaw
Simply put, southpaw refers to a person who is left handed. The term originated in the United States in the 19th century; however there are several opinions as to where the word came from. Some argue it started within the baseball world. Others say southpaw came from boxing. The evidence we have below suggests neither sport can lay claim to having started this word. Although the two sports, along with cricket, have definitely popularized the term.
Dave Wilton has a PhD in medieval English literature, is the author of Word Myths: Debunking Linguistic Urban Legends (Oxford University Press, 2004), and owns the website Wordorigins.org. Mr. Wilton says the earliest known reference to southpaw was in a letter published on June 30, 1813 in The Tickler, one of the earliest comic newspapers, and was based in Philadelphia.
"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"
“The actual quote is in reference to a critique of pronunciation," says Mr. Wilton. "He’s critiquing an article about a dog in a recent issue of The Tickler that reads, 'Bow vow, vow!' instead of 'Bow wow, wow!' He is holding the issue up in his right hand and pointing to the article with his 'south paw.' The use of 'paw' in this instance may be a double entendre relating to the dog. The 'south' is probably because in our culture we commonly spatially orient things in relation to north. Most people are right-handed, so 'south' is the opposite."
The term also appeared in an 1848 political satire published by Abel & Durang before any known use of the word southpaw in boxing or baseball. Whig Party vice-presidential candidate and future president Millard Fillmore is portrayed as lying on the floor after being struck by Democratic presidential candidate Lewis Cass’ left hand, as he shouted,
“Curse the Old hoss wot a south paw he has given me!”
In March 1854, the American satire magazine Yankee Notions (page 263) included the following reference to a 'soult paw', although we believe this to be a misspelling since this same written work appeared in the Iowa Republican on August 9, 1854 with the correct spelling of south paw:
"...Nutmeg, advancing, and placing his finger upon his long, sharp nose, and grabbing at the stranger, who, mistrusting the move meant no good, draws off, and puts in such a 'soult paw' that Nutmeg doubled up and went down all in a heap..."
When Did Baseball Start Using Southpaw?
When it comes to baseball, some people believe southpaw was first used to describe a left-handed pitcher. However, Tom Shieber, a senior curator at the National Baseball Hall of Fame, found the term in the New York Atlas on September 12, 1858 in reference to a left-handed batter who played first base, not a pitcher. This is the earliest known mention of a southpaw in baseball.
Hallock, a "south paw," let fly a good ball into right field.
Southpaw was also used in the context of a non-pitcher in 1876. The Dickson Baseball Dictionary has comprehensive research on this term. This publication describes how Tim Murnane explained to a journalist in the early 1900s that he was referred to as a southpaw in a St. Louis newspaper in 1876 because of his left-handed batting stance. This inspired Murnane to then use southpaw to describe left-handed pitchers.
The term continued to gain popularity in baseball in the 1880's. Some have claimed that Chicago News sportswriter and humorist Finley Peter Dunne and Chicago Herald’s Charles Seymour described how a left-handed pitcher faced a batter when throwing a pitch in a big-league stadium.
Chicago’s West Side Park and many other stadiums at the time were reportedly designed so all batters would face east to avoid the sun when looking at the pitcher. Therefore, a left-handed hurler would deliver a pitch with their left arm throwing along the south side of the stadium. Some historians believe this is how and when the term southpaw originated; the pitcher would throw with their paw along the southside of the stadium.
However, according to The Dickson Baseball Dictionary, the first use of southpaw to describe a left-handed pitcher was in The Sporting Life on January 14, 1885.
"They had always been accustomed to having their opponents hug their bases pretty close, out of respect for Morris' quick throw over to first with that south-paw of his"
This was about 27 years after it was used to reference a left-handed batter in the New York Atlas. So, it appears the term did not originate to describe left-handed pitchers.
Baseball perhaps didn’t come up with the term; however, it is possible that Chicago’s West Side Park and sports writers in the area helped popularize the word in the way they used it for left-handed pitchers.
When Did Boxing Start Using Southpaw?
Major League Baseball’s official historian John Thorn told Wall Street Journal language columnist Ben Zimmer the word southpaw was probably used in the sport of boxing before baseball adopted the term. During coverage of an 1860 bare-knuckle prizefight, the New York Herald mentioned that lefty David Woods, “planted his ‘south paw’ under [his opponent’s] chin, laying him out flat as a pancake” in the ninth round. In boxing, a southpaw is used to describe a left hander because of their unorthodox stance in the ring. Most people in the sport are right-handed, therefore a left-handed boxer moves and positions themselves in a very non-traditional manner when fighting.
Southpaw Did Not Originate With Baseball or Boxing
As you can see, there is no definitive theory as to where the term southpaw originated and picked up its true meaning. While the official origin of the word remains a mystery, evidence strongly suggests the term southpaw did not start with either baseball or boxing. Mr. Wilton says, "Clearly that's (baseball and boxing) not the origin of the phrase."
What we do know is after all these years, the term southpaw has stuck and is commonly used today when describing left handers in pretty much every sport, and when describing left handers in general. The next time someone asks you what a southpaw is, you now know what this unique word means and some of the history behind its origin.