Friday, October 20, 2006

Bend Sinister

Q. I'm reading a mystery novel and have come across the phrase "bend sinister." Sinister makes sense because evil is being threatened. Does the phrase imply that disaster is just around the bend or corner?

A. Not a bad reconstruction, but bend sinister is a term from heraldry. It's something that would appear on a coat of arms. Odds are that you're reading a British mystery novel.

The bend sinister is a band that runs from the bottom left side to the upper right side of a shield. (Sinister means "left" in Latin.) It often signifies that there was bastardy in the family lineage, but there are exceptions, depending on nationality.

There is also confusion as to whether the band should run from top left or top right. A definitive source (James Parker, A Glossary of Terms Used in Heraldry, 1894) says this: "As shields are always supposed to be upon the arms of the bearer, it is his left-hand side which is meant; consequently the sinister is on the spectator's right hand."

One more reason why the rich are different than you and me.

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