The Meaning Behind The Boy Scouts' Left-Hand Handshake Explained

What do the Boy Scouts have in common with Ashanti Warriors from West Africa? Well — possibly nothing depending on who you believe. Inspiring a love of the great outdoors in young boys everywhere, the Boy Scouts are known for their raucous outdoor activities. On the slightly weirder end, they are also famous for a range of rituals and traditions, including the celebrated left-handed shake of brotherhood (via Scouting Magazine).

The use of the left hand to greet a fellow scout may seem a bit odd — in many societies across the globe, the left hand has some fairly dark connotations. In the west, the left hand was once associated with dark magic (via Time), and according to Smithsonian Magazine, the use of the left hand has long been considered a freakish aberration, everywhere from India to the Islamic world. Most incredibly left-handedness is still frowned upon by many people in Japan today (via The Japan Times).

According to an oft-repeated story, the reason behind the unusual custom lies with the adventurous founder of the scouts, Lord Baden-Powell. But is it really true?

Imperial origins?

While the first adventures of the Boy Scouts took place in sleepy Dorset in the U.K., the founder of the scouts, Lord Baden-Powell personally spent a great deal of time in more exciting locations. A stint in the British army took Powell across India as well as Africa (via Boy Scouts of America), where according to a rumor reported by Scouting Magazine, he met a group of Ashanti tribesmen.

Raising his right hand to greet the Ashanti (so the story goes), he was admonished. Presenting his left hand to Powell instead, an Ashanti Chief responded: "In our land only the bravest of the brave shake hands with the left hand, because to do so we must drop our shields and our protection" (via Scouting Magazine). The Ashanti people still make up a sizable chunk of the population of Ghana today, and at their height, during the 19th century, the Ashanti often came into contact (both violent and non-violent) with British imperialists (via PBS). Given Powell's history of military service, the story is quite plausible, but could there be a more mundane reason behind the tradition?

2 hands are better than 1

Well — maybe. There is a potentially useful practical explanation behind the use of the left hand. Because left-handedness has historically been heavily stigmatized, many children were once forced to correct themselves (via History Extra), learning to use their right hand and becoming ambidextrous. The one positive upshot of this superstitious taboo is that ambidexterity is actually quite useful. According to the Scouting Organization of America, Powell himself was ambidextrous — and he was so passionate about the subject, he wrote the forward for a 1905 book entitled, "Ambidexterity, or Two-handedness and two-brainedness" by John Jackson (via the Welcome Collection).

In his forward, he claims that all people would do well to develop this talent, in order to maximize their body's capabilities and make themselves more productive. He added that " ... I thoroughly appreciate how much more can be done by using them both together" (via Weird Universe). Alex Boeses, writing for Weird Universe argues that it was this very obsession that led the globe-trotting soldier to introduce the fabled left handshake — casting doubt on the more romantic tale.